ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith knows he has a trait that NFL teams covet.
2011 was the year of the tight end in the NFL. New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and New England's Rob Gronkowski both ranked in the top five in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns among all NFL pass-catchers.
Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew, Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, New England's Aaron Hernandez and Dallas' Jason Witten were also among the league's top receivers, each hauling in more than 79 passes.
Teams need a weapon on defense that can neutralize the advantage those players give the offense. Smith believes he can be that guy.
"That's something that I think I'm good at, and that I can bring to teams, is the ability to cover tight ends man-to-man," Smith said. "It's something I did throughout my career. In practice I got to go against Kyle Rudolph, who was a high draft pick (by Minnesota) last year. This past year I went against Tyler Eifert, and he'll be picked next year."
In addition to matching up against top competition every day in practice, Smith said he feels his versatility and knowledge of the game give him the ability to match up against bigger targets.
He noted that top tight ends have size, speed, agility and big hands, so that even if you're in tight coverage they can still catch the ball. So, in his mind, it's all about body position.
"You just have to know what you're doing, and at the end of the day I feel like that's something I excel at," he said. "So I'll be able to put my body in the right position to make an impact on that play."
Smith, a team captain in 2011, is the only player in Irish history to register more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups in his career.
For his career, the safety racked up 309 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 28 pass breakups, seven interceptions, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
As he was compiling those numbers, Smith said he was always comparing himself to former Broncos safety Steve Atwater, who he called his favorite safety "of all time."
"My previous coach always told me I needed to play like (him) and look up to him," Smith said. "And I remember watching him when I was young, making that hit against Green Bay (on the final drive of Super Bowl XXXII). He's a guy I've always admired."
Like Atwater, a seven-time Pro Bowler, Smith worked hard to be a leader on defense.
With the Fighting Irish, Smith -- who was on the field for 95 percent of all defensive snaps -- often got the defense lined up, recognized formations and made checks to ensure the unit was on the same page.
Now that he's prepared to enter the NFL -- ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. has him as the second-best safety in the class -- Smith will look to bring all of those traits to the next level. But he recognizes he'll have to approach things a little differently as a rookie.
"I'm not a guy who tries to bark out orders and stuff like that -- that's not how I'd play, especially as a rookie," he said. "But I'm confident in my ability to learn a playbook, to understand offenses, and then as a safety your job is to get the defense aligned.
"That's just part of the role."