Tales of summer conditioning improvements litter the college football world. Each spring, myriad players conclude official practice sessions and inevitably each August, purportedly return in "the best shape of their lives."
“Physically, he’s very gifted," said fifth-year Irish strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo. "I definitely wouldn’t take full credit on his physical capabilities because he came in with a lot of physical capabilities. He’s improved them, he’s got great stamina and more than anything his intensity and his love of the game is second to none. Whenever he does anything it’s at the absolute top level whether it’s film or weight training.
“He hadn’t weight trained much before he got here. He’s really improved a lot in that area and it has and will continue to show in his stamina. He has the lowest body fat on the team; it was measured at 3.9% and that’s unbelievable. There’s a three-percent variance so it’s probably closer to 5%. He got measured on the BodPod like they do at the NFL Combine.”
The NFL will have to wait for Smith, at least until the conclusion of the 2015 season. But any list of "can't miss" pro prospects that have made their way through South Bend over the last 30 years would include Smith near the top.
It's among the reasons Smith and his fellow NFL hopefuls -- aka, a college roster -- are thrilled with the new defensive scheme implemented since the outset of spring ball.
"If you think about it, we installed an NFL defense," said Smith of first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder's teachings. "It's something that's very exciting to know that we can comprehend something that detailed. As camp has concluded, it's about binding together. Now we're a team. At first it was offense vs. defense and we're going to whip your tail. Now we're all one."
One of Smith's goals since his rookie season ended was bringing his Irish teammates to that end. One team, one goal -- more than one leader -- but Smith is doubtless amount them, despite his sophomore status.
"I'm very comfortable with (leadership)," he said. "I'm used to the expectations. Leadership is ingrained in me. Vocally and also by example. It's something that I value."
He'll bring it on the field as the focal point of VanGorder's defense.
"I'm seeing the game from a different view," he said of the weak side (Will) linebacker position. "Last year it was from an outside perspective so I was always setting the edge, making sure nothing got outside of me. This year I'll be challenging those 300-pound lineman on every play. Being able to work on both sides of the field every single play."
As explained by his position coach Bob Elliott, Smith will have a hand in everything.
"We’re primarily a 4-3 (defense), which means the two outside linebackers, depending on how we set our front, could be in the box or out of the box. Jaylon is going to be out of the box and in the box some and so are our Sam (strong side) linebackers. But the difference is he’s predominantly in the box, which is very different for him. His whole high school career he played on the ball and he was a rush end and then he played his first college season on the ball also.”
“He’s as smart of a kid as I’ve ever coached," Elliott continued. "Coach (Brian) VanGorder has done a great job brining him along. I’m just amazed how he’s taken to it. He had to learn completely new footwork and he had to learn new eye progressions. When you’re in the box you have to see everything. You have to see the pulling guards, tackles pulling and tight ends that go back behind the line of scrimmage.
"He’s been able to master that, which is amazing. He has very good football intellect and he’s a very natural player. One thing that’s interesting about Jaylon is that he’s so flexible and athletic that he can get his body into a bad position and still get out of it and make a very good play. I’ve never seen a guy be able to recover from a bad position better than Jaylon.”
Irish head coach Brian Kelly often references players that are "still learning the game."
Smith, conversely, lives it, which makes the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Biship Luers product and VanGorder an ideal match.
"I'm all ears when he speaks. Never do I ever miss it," said Smith of his new tutor's teachings. "He always says, 'You get what you earn. Work hard work.' He gives it to us real, understanding that it's going to be hard but you have to work for it.
"(The defense ) allows me a chance to have a foot in everything. One play outside, one inside, one blitzing, one playing the middle of the field."
Smith conceded during spring installation that the new scheme was more mentally taxing on the linebackers (and safeties). He's up for the challenge.
“There are a lot of athletes like Jaylon, but they don’t combine what Jaylon has up here (mental) with his football intellect and his attitude," said Elliott. "Jaylon is a humble guy and he’s got a thirst for learning. It’s amazing and he works harder at it than anybody. I can’t say enough good things about him. I love being around him.”
Notre Dame's pre-season mutual admiration society on defense will remain intact only if Smith ascends from his freshman All-America level of 2013 to national prominence this fall. Without weekly excellence from the precocious talent, points will be scored aplenty against a youth-filled Irish defense.
"I was just always raised that if you're going to go out and do something, you want to try to be the best at it," said Smith. "It really boils down to work ethic."
Smith has that. Along with everything else.