Living on the Edge

Freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith is no different than his 10 fellow starters in that he has a defined set of "musts" as set forth by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for each snap. Eight games into his college career, Smith's fulfilling those musts better each day.

An old adage in sports posits that rookies are often so far behind the curve that "they don't even know what they don't know."

Notre Dame freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith is an exception to that rule. Self-aware, humble, and more interested in acquiring knowledge than most, the 6'2" 230-pounder is also blessed with preternatural athletic gifts.

So forgive him for thinking he was ready for his first brush with the triple-option last Saturday against the Air Force Academy.

"It was very fast," said Smith, admitting a bit of shock at the precision and speed at which the Falcons offense operates. "Even though the guys were telling me, it was (surprising)."

Head coach Brian Kelly marveled at the youngster's instincts in his first brush with a true option attack. "When you're a 3-4 linebacker playing drop, you force the football. That's what you do. You immediately attack and force," said Kelly of defending standard offenses. "He was not in that role. He was slow playing the quarterback, the pitch. And the patience that he showed to buy time for the Mike (middle linebacker) to get over a block, or the safety to come from the backside hash, you just don't teach that. It's just instincts that he had that he could slow play the options."

Smith noted that after a adjusting to the Falcons speed in execution, it became almost enjoyable to defend the option attack.

"You get a feel for it and it's just doing your job at that point. It's always fun making plays. After the first couple of series you get into a zone and can defend it, because they ultimately do the same stuff."

Smith's zone has lasted for the better part of three games. Solid in September (he was arguably the defensive MVP in a loss to Michigan), the rookie has been spectacular of late, registering 21 tackles (including 3.5 for lost yardage), a fumble recovery, an interception, and a pass breakup.

He's the only player on the defense to record each of the turnover stats (FF, FR, INT) and it's worth noting Smith accomplished that feat by his eighth game. Former Irish superstar Manti Te'o didn't register his first interception and fumble recovery until game 39, last season vs. Navy.

"Coming in as a freshman you're a little behind because you don't know the playbook as much, but I made it a goal to compete every day," Smith said. "There were a lot of times where I just had to shoot my gun and make the play," he said specifically of the Arizona State game. "Get out in my comfort zone and play football."

Adhering to the Musts

Smith's ascent, not coincidentally, coincides with defensive improvement by Diaco's unit. The group hasn't allowed a second half point since Arizona State marched down the field vs. Notre Dame's too-soft prevent defense at the conclusion of a 37-34 Irish win in Arlington. Over the last three contests, Notre Dame has forced foes into 11 three-and-out possession, three more four-and-out possessions, while creating six turnovers.

They've allowed first downs on just 13 of their opponents last 43 attempts and 2 of 7 on fourth down tries.

Each player's role is well-defined, of that, Diaco makes certain. The fourth-year Irish coordinator has a list of "musts" for every snap, and for each player.

"I play the outside linebacker position and my musts are to play the force, deny vertical entry, and to set the edge," Smith said. "Setting the edge is something outside linebackers here (must) do. He preaches to us. We have to do that," said Smith of Diaco. "As we accomplish that, everything goes well thereafter.

Setting the edge is the most physical aspect of Smith's responsibilities. It's not the hardest, however.

"Deny vertical entry is, say if its a Cover 2 or we play one of our coverages, I cannot let No. 2 (the second receiver in from the sidelines) on the seam. I have to deny him off the seam, I have to re-route him."

Re-routing receivers is perhaps the most undervalued aspect of a defender's skill set. There' no stat that records it, save for the undeniable fact that a passing offense cannot thrive if its receivers are consistently re-routed each play.

At this point, Smith's three musts are second nature, though he still takes a moment pre-snap to focus on the definitive order and progression.

"I definitely remind myself whenever I have the force, which means I have to set the edge, I can't let the ball get outside of me. I remind myself and put myself through that cycle (of responsibilities). Once the play snaps, if I have ultimate force, make sure I do that."

Told the defense has improved as he became more comfortable in the field-side linebacker role (often referred to as "the dog" or "drop," though not by Diaco himself), Smith noted, "I take it as doing my job better. I have a better understanding of what I'm supposed to do and my eye progression. What am I supposed to be looking at. That comes with experience. If I just keep working at it, it'll get better."

And more fun, both for Smith and Irish fans alike.


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