'We're doing this together' — Jon Sot and Chris Smith make successful transition from Harvard to Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — After traveling back from a Friday night road win over Cornell, Harvard football coach Tim Murphy enjoyed a rare luxury over the weekend: The chance to flip around the television dial and watch college football on a mostly worry-free Saturday.
Now in his 29th season with the Crimson, including nine Ivy League championships, the winningest coach in league history had a clear rooting interest when it came to the Shamrock Series and Notre Dame’s hard-fought win over BYU in Las Vegas. Two of Murphy’s former Harvard standouts, punter/holder Jon Sot and defensive tackle Chris Smith, were key contributors as graduate transfers for the Irish.
“I just got bits and pieces, in all honesty,” Murphy said after Wednesday’s practice in Cambridge, Mass., “but (I watch) every chance I get, which is very few based on our schedule. We watch them on TV when we can. We try to keep up with them via texting. I text with most of those guys every week, whether it’s our guy at UCLA, our guy at Duke, our guy at North Carolina or our two guys at Notre Dame.”
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Third nationally in average punting distance, Sot made this week’s watch list for the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter at the FBS level. Smith, a 312-pound run stopper from Detroit who has packed on more than 50 pounds since high school, has seen his role increase since overcoming an early-season elbow injury.
Joining them in this minitrend are former Crimson teammates Jacob Sykes, a UCLA defensive lineman; Anthony Nelson, a Duke defensive end; and Spencer Rolland, North Carolina’s starting right tackle.
Back at Harvard, there is no resentment from their former coaches and teammates. There is only pride.
“We’re so fortunate; we’ve had so many good kids over the years,” Murphy said. “When the grad transfer rule came into fruition, we were concerned initially because you might lose a kid who now would graduate instead of maybe take his fifth year, but it’s been tremendous for our kids. It’s been tremendous for our program.”
While Stanford has taken just three graduate transfers since 2015, including former Oklahoma safety Patrick Fields, who will start at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night, the Irish have benefited from the modern dynamic. In the tradition of Ben Skowronek (Northwestern), Jack Coan (Wisconsin), Nick McCloud (N.C. State), Cain Madden (Marshall) and others, Sot and Smith are making an impact.
“I’m really happy for the kids,” Murphy said. “To have that great opportunity to continue to play Division I football but also to get a great education in terms of a master’s degree – it’s all good.”
Sot’s curiosity was piqued during his Harvard years when he saw “leaders on the Harvard team” such as Justice Shelton-Mosley (Vanderbilt), Devin Darrington (Virginia), Eric Wilson (Penn State) and Liam Shanahan (LSU) go the grad transfer route.
“Seeing them go on to play at these extremely large FBS programs showed me that this could be a possibility for me,” Sot said. “I thought, ‘OK, maybe I’ll do this.’ Punting is a different position, but seeing how good they were at their positions, I figured I would also have an opportunity, and here I am.”
Like Smith, Sot is determined not to take this experience for granted. The punter from Clark, N.J., sometimes will remove his golden helmet before games and “just do a 360 and look around and be like, ‘Look how blessed I am to be here.’ A lot of people would die for this.”
The speed of the game and the size of the crowds are obvious differences between the Ivy League, which does not award athletic scholarships, and the competition level among the so-called Power Five conferences that rule college football.
However, Murphy, who paved the way for Brian Kelly and Marcus Freeman at Cincinnati with a five-year turnaround project from 1989-93, isn’t surprised to see so many of his former players make the successful leap.
“The two kids at Notre Dame, those guys are obviously great players,” said Murphy, who was 32 when he took over the Bearcats. “That’s the reason they’re able to play at that level, and that’s the reason they were recruited (as transfers) by so many schools, including one of the great football schools in the country.
“But they were also just really great, high-character kids, and that sort of transcended where people thought their ability might be and that’s why they’re possibly pro prospects.”
Sot, who admittedly got out of shape when the Ivy League canceled its 2020 football season due to COVID-19, had a disappointing 2021 season but still drew interest once he entered the transfer portal last November.
Former Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian was the first to reach out to Sot, direct messaging him on Twitter after Jay Bramblett, Notre Dame’s starting punter for three seasons, made his grad transfer intentions known.
Even after Polian and Bramblett wound up following Kelly to LSU in December, Sot was intrigued by Notre Dame. Longtime Freeman associate Brian Mason, hired away from Cincinnati in early January, wasted no time in reaching out to Sot.
Bryce McFerson, a highly touted recruit from the Charlotte, N.C., area; was set to enroll in June, but Sot arrived in South Bend at the same time and subsequently beat out the freshman blessed with a “monster of a leg,” as Mason said during training camp.
It helped, Sot said, to have Smith around as a familiar face and trusted confidant.
“We’re doing this together,” Sot said. “That’s such a great thing to have. If I’m having a rough day, I know I can call Chris because he’s been with me throughout this entire journey. It’s really awesome to have him here.”
Sot played a key role in recruiting Smith to join forces again after he had committed to Minnesota in mid-January. When 323-pound defensive tackle Aidan Keanaiana suffered a torn ACL in the first session of spring practice, the Irish suddenly had a need.
Fresh off a spring break trip to Pawleys Island, S.C., where the family of one of his seven Harvard roommates had a place, Smith was working out in Cambridge and completing work toward his degree when his phone buzzed.
“I saw a text or email from someone at Notre Dame: ‘We just want to talk,’ “ Smith said. “I was definitely shocked. It was a good feeling.”
In addition to position coach Al Washington and other Irish staffers laying out the benefits, Smith kept hearing from Sot.
“Those couple weeks he definitely hit my phone a lot,” Smith said with a smile. “It’s definitely cool having someone I went to school with who knows the grind at Harvard and was someone familiar going to a new place. I think that’s been extremely helpful, too.”
Sot, who majored in economics at Harvard, and Smith are in many of the same classes as they pursue their master’s degrees in business management. Long snapper Michael Vinson and defensive lineman Nana Osafo-Mensah are in the same program.
“They’re great dudes,” Vinson said of the Harvard newcomers. “It’s easy to transfer as a grad student and not do anything, but these guys want to go above and beyond. You can tell that they want to succeed in everything that they do.”
Asked about his skill as a recruiter, Sot smiled.
“I talked to Chris about it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Dude, just check it out. Just give it a shot.’ He took a shot, and he loves it.”
A mother's inspiration
Murphy has made countless home visits in his coaching career, but he will never forget the first time he met with Smith and his mother, Sebrina Hicks, who works in human resources at an international manufacturing conglomerate.
“I remember very vividly recruiting Chris,” Murphy said. “Chris comes from inner-city Detroit. When I went to visit him, it’s downtown, tough, (the) mean streets of Detroit. Bars on the window.”
Smith, then a promising edge rusher at Cranbrook Kingswood, a private boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; had drawn interest from other Ivy and Patriot league schools. Murphy quickly saw the inspiration behind the unlikely success story.
“You spent just five minutes with him and his mom and you just knew they were special — special in terms of their character,” Murphy said. “This kid who came from a very humble background, single-parent mom, could somehow climb that mountain of being accepted to Harvard.”
As Smith weighed his options in the spring, one of the key factors was proximity. Instead of having to fly back and forth between Detroit and Minneapolis to watch her only child play his final college season, Sebrina Hicks is just a 3 ½-drive away.
“She’s raised me as a single mom, basically my whole life,” Smith said. “It’s kind of been me and her throughout a lot of things in my life. She’s obviously special to me in terms of making my decisions. It was us making decisions together and where I see my future. She’s the best.”
During Notre Dame’s bye week, Smith flew back to Boston so he could catch up with his old coaches and teammates. He sat in the stands on a rainy 54-degree afternoon at Harvard Stadium on Oct. 1 as the Crimson suffered their only loss so far this season, 30-21 to nationally ranked Holy Cross.
Attendance was just 7,726 – a far cry from the 106,549 at Ohio Stadium when Smith made his Irish debut.
“It was weird seeing a lot of the guys I played with and not being out there,” Smith said, “but it was definitely a cool experience being able to see it from a fan’s perspective and just being able to enjoy the game as a spectator.”
Even amid the disappointment of a rare loss, Murphy brightened when he saw Smith walk toward him. Coach and former player sat down for 20 minutes and talked.
“Off week at Notre Dame, and what does he do? He comes home,” Murphy said. “He still feels like Harvard is his home. It was a part of him that you could tell (he) didn’t want to leave.”
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino and TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.