From Second to First?

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith earned second-team All-America honors last season. Ascent to the first team isn't only likely, it's essential.

There was a moment witnessed in mid-August, a conversation, actually, between sophomores Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield.

As the team walked from a practice inside the House that Rockne Built to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, the mentor, Smith, used the five-minute journey to cajole the pupil.

They're classmates, not veteran vs. rookie. And they play different positions, and were both in the midst of learning their new responsibilities under first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder .

But Smith, the natural-born leader, had something to say. And Redfield, the natural-born athlete, was listening.

Such is life for Notre Dame's best pro prospect and likely its best football player heading into the 2015 spring session. He's always been ahead of schedule -- a true sophomore leader? -- always been conscientious and focused.

And it doesn't hurt that he's always been an athletic tick or 200 above the rest of the fray.

"As far as expectations, they're always there," said Smith last fall as the Irish defense hit its collective peak following a win over Stanford. "Coach (VanGorder) is coaching me to be a one-timer -- make a mistake and that same mistake won't ever happen again. That's what he preaches to me."

Often lauded as a precocious freshman and still-ahead-of-schedule sophomore, Smith enters the second phase of his collegiate career, one in which he's expected to be above reproach: a no-doubt All-American. A weekly difference-maker.

In Year 2 of the VanGorder system, excuses aren't acceptable, not that Smith would consider offering one.

"You get what you earn," he said, parroting his defensive coordinator's mantra. "The less you complain, the less stressful it gets to be a student-athlete. You have to have that laser-beam focus."

Early wins turned to losses late, but Smith's focus never wavered. He knew his defense wasn't whole, but there was a silver-lining to the group's poor production in four consecutive defeats. He also realized there was a major step not yet taken. Perhaps not yet approached.

"Great effort. The effort was there," said Smith following a Senior Day loss to Louisville. "It's just about having the physical and mental mentality to the point where we're not going to be denied.

"That's where age plays a picture. We had two rookies playing in their first-ever game up front," he continued. "They gave it their all. We just have to find a way to keep improving."

Smith will be at the forefront of those efforts this spring, through the summer, and well into the fall.

Only a sub par outing vs. North Carolina in early October stood between Smith and a full season slate of Top 10/honorable mention nominations in our post-game film reviews.

-- Top 10 Outings: Rice, Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse, Stanford (MVP), Northwestern, Louisville, USC, LSU
-- Honorable Mentions: FSU, ASU, Navy
-- Did Not Play: Louisville, Northwestern
-- End-Season Ranking: No. 2 (Day, Smith, Fuller, Luke, Schmidt, Folston, Rochell, Stanley, Golson, Riggs)
-- (My) Ranking Entering Spring 2015: No. 1 (Smith, Stanley, Day, Fuller, Rochell, Luke, Folston...) Top Stories