Leader of Men

Sophomore Jaylon Smith is happy to share with his veteran teammates the burden and honor of leading Notre Dame into its new era defensively.

You want an attacking defense? Notre Dame has a linebacker that can wreak havoc and make plays.

You want a disciplined, gap control unit with precious few missed fits, whether it be run or pass?

The Irish have a future standout to thrive in such a scheme as well.

Notre Dame 2014 and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will feature the former, and sophomore Jaylon Smith is the most important player to that end.

"A guy like Jaylon Smith is playing a lot of different positions right now, partly because of ability and partly because he has good, natural instinct," said VanGorder during spring's installation period. "But we've got to get him settled down and get him in a comfort zone and (decide) exactly what it is we're going to have him do.

"He learns well. The picture of the world of football is a little clearer to him. He's still learning and still has a long ways to go. But he seems to have a comfort with that. We've got to get him settled in so we can take advantage of the obvious physical traits."

Those traits include unique ability in space -- moving forward, backward, or laterally. And it's the latter that few 6'2" 230-pound 'backers can do, at least playing against the nation's elite skill players.

"You're going to find your guys that hold up best," said VanGorder of the heavy man-to-man responsibilities that befall his back seven. "And if you have a linebacker that has special traits out there on cover downs, you figure out the coverages you want to use with him."

Practice viewings have shown Smith playing to the strong side (over the tight end) in 4-3 fronts and as an inside 'backer during the team's nickel and dime packages. The sub package role seems an ideal fit though Smith wasn't used in that capacity as a true freshman last fall.

"It's a compliment in all reality," said Smith of his myriad roles this spring. "You can't look at it as that because that's when you get complacent if you acknowledge things too much. (But) I grasp things very fast, so now that I'm learning multiple positions it's gonna take awhile, but I feel like with everything going in the right direction, and we're not traveling at a super fast pace, I think I'll be fine." Smith noted his initial position (and likely his position on 1st and 10) was the Sam (strong side) linebacker. "You have to understand the actual defense, the concepts, not just what you do each play.

"We get graded each practice, each play to tell you what you did wrong. My thing is to then eradicate those mistakes and go from there."

Asked how his grades have been, Smith offered, "They've been (good). I haven't gotten any loafs since the first day. A loaf is something when the ball is out and you're not sprinting toward the ball. I can say I eradicated that since the first day."

Driven to be the best

Not yet in his third semester of college, Smith is nonetheless being asked to emerge as one of the leaders defensively.

"In an ideal world, you want your best players to be your best leaders," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "Sometimes, that's not the case. You observe daily, find out who those guys are, and try to cultivate those individuals.

"With this group, in '14, our best players can be our best leaders. They may not all be seniors. We've got some great seniors. All our seniors are committed. But we may have some underclassmen who are great leaders too."

VanGorder has been in Smith's ear to that end.

Repeatedly.

"Yeah, but what do you expect? We're learning a new defense," said Smith of being driven by his coordinator and position coach on a daily basis. "It's not like we know the defense and are continuing to make errors. That's the thing, you have to learn from what he tells you and not let it happen again."

Asked when he was last taken to task in practice, Smith recalled, "Well (former defensive coordinator) Bob (Diaco) did it once. Air Force, the first day (of practice) it's a different type of style against the option and I totally screwed up, it was ridiculous. He got on me. The next day I got the whole concept and it was perfect."

Diaco helped Smith develop into one of Notre Dame's 10 best football players by season's end last fall. VanGorder, Kelly, and strength & conditioning coach Paul Longo are tasked with removing the "Notre Dame" part of that reality from future equations.

Until then, Smith simply has to improve daily. And to help lead, both the youngsters and his elders.

"Even though I'm still 18 years old, it doesn't matter," Smith said. "You can't look at it like that, I don't like to put an age on things. It's really just about ability and really just holding yourself accountable. I'm very open to new things. I'm not selfish, I'm a very selfless type of guy. I realize that's the type of players that you need at Notre Dame. I'll take that.

"Everyone's learning new things. It's a totally new defense, new concepts, new terminology. So it's really you need those types of guys to step up. I think I'll be able to do that."

Told that fifth-year senior, fellow leader and spring standout Austin Collinsworth compared spring practice to "cramming for finals for five straight weeks," Smith laughed and added, "It's stressful, but the less you complain the easier it gets. That's what I believe, that's what I live by. You have to do it, and it's a game we've been playing since we were eight years old. I'm here to cherish every moment.

"I grasp things very fast," he continued. "Now that I'm learning multiple positions it's going to take awhile, but everything is going in the right direction and we're not traveling at a super fast pace, so I'm sure I'll be fine and it's going to be a great year."


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories