Man Up

True freshman Jaylon Smith has emerged as one of Notre Dame's 10 best players in his initial season of collegiate competition. The first 11 games of his college career? Child's play compared to what he'll see in the trenches Saturday in Palo Alto.

Plays made in space? He's got that covered.

Leaping passes defended, running backs chased for loss from behind, and an acumen for sticky coverage? Check, check, and check.

Taking on a 300-pound pulling guard intent on damage? Welcome to college football, Jaylon Smith. Welcome to Stanford.

"He'll be 1/11th of (the defense) and we'll put him in a position where we can utilize some of his skill-sets," said Kelly of his precocious freshman outside 'backer. "He's going to play a tight end that we think he can match up with. The pulling guard, no, he can't match up with the pulling guard, no question about it. But where we have him positioned, we think we can neutralize that end of things, but he's going to need some help along the way."

He'll get it, both from the undermanned Irish defensive front and his trio of fellow linebackers, all seniors, all veterans of head-knockers with the Cardinal.

"I told Jaylon it's time to put on his big boy pads," said fifth-year senior Dan Fox.

Fox enters his third meeting with Stanford. His most recent included one of the best plays of his collegiate career, a split-second read followed by a sprint and strike demolition of a screen pass to Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor in overtime last fall. The Irish prevailed 20-13.

Fox's first meeting, the last time the Irish traveled to Palo Alto, was…less successful.

"My first taste against them was two years ago, they had some really strong linemen," Fox offered. "One of the linemen actually put me on my back. They were good. I think of that with Stanford: offensive linemen trying to put you on your back."

Fox noted that it's not one element of Stanford's offensive front but a mixture of ideal football traits that have allowed the Cardinal to bury opponents with a power running game over each of the last four seasons.

"It's that combination (strength, attitude, technique) plus their football intelligence," said Fox. "They're really smart guys at Stanford. It's a tough school to get into. They have that toughness, but they pair it with intelligence. It's a pretty tough combination."

Out of his comfort zone?

Smith helped finish off Brigham Young last week with two crucial goal line plays, the first a supremely athletic effort in chase near the end of the third quarter, the second another that showcased his athleticism, this time vertically instead of horizontally.

"I actually was signaling touchdown when I saw the slant and No. 13 for Notre Dame knocked it down," said Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall of Smith and his leaping pass defensed at the goal line. "I thought Cody (Hoffman) had the guy beat inside. That was a huge play.  I thought we had a touchdown there."

They almost had a touchdown two drives prior as well. With BYU quarterback Taysom Hill outside the Irish tackle box, Smith was the only defender between the prolific signal-caller and the end zone. He dropped Hill for a one-yard loss, dragging him down from behind to save a score.

"Earlier in the game, it was a similar play and No. 4 (Hill) bounced it, and he stiff-armed me," said Smith of a previous tackle he missed. "We talked it up on the sideline and the same play presented and I was able to make that."

Smith's leaping pass defended at scrimmage (described by Mendenhall above) was as much brains as quick-twitch muscle reaction.

"Eye progression. Looking at things he usually doesn't do," said Smith of Hill on the quick slant pass attempt. "He turned his eyesight right in the direction I was in and I positioned myself to make a play."

The freshman's football acumen will be tested Saturday as well, especially when Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan goes to the well (often) with a series of play-action passes. But there's no mistaking the biggest challenge facing both Smith and his teammates this weekend on The Farm.

"Michigan State is a tough, physical team but nothing like Stanford," said Smith of previous smash mouth affairs in his first season. "It's about every play, sticking my head in there. Making full contact every play, but it's all about the preparation."

Asked what a 230-pounder does to combat 300-pound linemen in space (Stanford often utilizes seven offensive linemen rather than the standard five), Smith noted, "Just have to use my advantages. Being able to sting and float, using my speed as best I can. Whenever it's time to be physical, you have to do that.

"It's about mixing it up. It's a mentality and it's about approaching the game the right way."

Two teams that play the game and approach the sport of college football "the right way" will knock heads Saturday in Palo Alto.

Brains and brawn vs. brains and brawn. As Kelly noted earlier this week, they're both after the same thing.

"Both teams want to be the smartest toughest football teams in the country…We get a chance to decide it on the football field. Last year we were able to get Stanford. Now we've got a chance to settle it again on Saturday." Top Stories