Front and Center

Smith's move inside designed to keep him involved in every aspect of the Irish defense this fall.

Not all leaders are vocal. Not all of them lead by example, nor do they always represent the best players on a football team. And not all leaders, are seniors.

But all leaders, at least the effective ones, are respected. Notre Dame sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith doubtless fits that requirement -- he just happens to be vocal, a tireless worker, and rank among the handful of best players in the Irish football program.

And in 2014, Smith will play a larger role defensively: smack dab in the middle of the action.

"Jaylon Smith's role has evolved as our defense has evolved," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "He's going to be asked to do a lot more, not only as a specific player but as a leader in our defense. He's one of the more respected players on our team even though he's a sophomore.

"We're going to ask him to play some inside linebacker and some edge player for us. So, he's going to be seen in a different role than he was last year because we think he can impact the game for us. I'd say a much expanded role from last year."

Smith's role last season was to take away the wide side perimeter as the drop linebacker, and he did so with aplomb, earning either Irisheyes.com defensive MVP honors or a defensive game ball award against Michigan, Arizona State, USC, Air Force, Navy, Pittsburgh, Brigham Young, and Rutgers.

All as a true freshman -- each time playing the former defensive system's most difficult position.

Now he's the weak side inside linebacker (i.e., strong side, middle, weak side on your TV screen, with the SLB generally aligned closer to the tight end while the will is to the 'open' side).

"I'll be in a position where I'm going to be in on every play," said Smith following Notre Dame's first training camp session. "It's a strategy Coach Kelly and Coach (Brian) VanGorder came up with where I can (make) a vocal and physical impact on each play."

Smith was billed as the class of 2013's best coverage linebacker. He made good on that projection throughout his freshman season, most notably with an eye-opening interception against USC and star receiver Nelson Agholor, a remarkable play in which Smith first faked a blitz, then sprinted 15 yards deep to the wide side in zone coverage to converge on the previously open Agholor before registering the takeaway.

He'll be involved in myriad coverage and blitz schemes this fall as well, but remaining stout against the run as an every-down player ranks as a new challenge.

"I believe I can do it all," Smith offered confidently. "It's about your work ethic and being coachable. I'm here to do what I have to do to help the team."

Smith likewise put to rest concerns that he might not be able to let his instincts take over at a new position for his second collegiate season.

"It's a lot more instinctive," he said of the will. "I'm not worried about the speed of the game, I've adjusted to that. We had the whole spring to kind of get the grasp of (a new scheme). It's not an issue or an excuse."

A Sophomore Shall Lead Them?

Despite the loss of five key players (six total) from the 2011 recruiting class prior to graduation, Kelly's 2014 Irish are not void of senior leadership. Center Nick Martin is a near-lock for captaincy, and his elder, 5th-year guard Christian Lombard remains a prime candidate as well. So too is emergent senior 'backer Joe Schmidt and top juniors Keivarae Russell and Sheldon Day.

And then there's the true sophomore that possesses as much talent and charisma as anyone in the country.

"I think a sophomore could be a leader. I don't think that's out of the question," Kelly said in reference to Smith.

Asked if captain status was plausible, the head coach offered, "I wouldn't rule it out of being a possibility. He's a leader on our football team right now. Whether he gets a "C" on the jersey, we'll see how that plays out. But I wouldn't say that's out of the realm of possibility."

Not much is. Smith was one of the team's top 10 players as a true freshman last season. He's easily among its three best entering 2014. 13 games as a starter last season prepared him for his newest role:

Mentor.

"It's a big difference. I'm glad to be in Year Two and not running around, and being all out of control," Smith said. "It's really helpful to have that year under my belt."

With experience and immense talent comes responsibility. However premature.

“Obviously, to be a leader by example, but also vocal. To be able to touch guys and their inner feelings," he offered of his mission, both in camp and throughout the season. "When they mess up, it’s knowing when to yell and be firm and knowing when to pull them aside and be their brother and correct.

"We're all a team. We have to make each other better. It's things like that that creates a great team."

And a great leader, no matter his age.


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