An essential and galvanizing pledge for Notre Dame’s still-blossoming 2013 recruiting class, Jaylon Smith ranks among the most athletic and dedicated linebackers in program history.
An NFL prospect from the moment he stepped on campus, Smith has since proved to be among the best freshmen, then last season among the best sophomore defensive prospects in college football.
Heading into his junior season the goal is clear: Smith aspires to take a massive leap forward and conclude 2015 as the best defensive football player in the nation.
Irish Illustrated continues its ND A to Z preview series with the versatile defender from Bishop Luers (Fort Wayne, Ind.) High School.
Smith leads a rejuvenated defense – one equipped with experienced, battle-tested upperclassmen and second-year players alike – to a post-season playoff berth.
Notre Dame’s most talented player since he stepped on the Shiloh Park (Marion, Ind.) practice field as a rookie in August 2013, Smith has intermittently proved to be the team’s best player as well.
A best-case scenario for his junior campaign is a dominant playmaking effort along the lines of senior season Manti Te’o in 2012 in which Smith not only stuffs the run inside and to the boundary, but is unable to unleash his ludicrous athletic ability to make momentum-changing big plays (sacks, interceptions, TFL, forced fumbles, etc.) when the defense needs it most.
The 2015 Irish defense is unlikely to line up and dominate as did Te’o’s 2012 group, but it is stocked with playmakers and enough talent to defeat every offense it will face. Smith’s assumed greatness for 2015 would turn that potential into a reality.
There’s no realistic “worst-case” regarding Smith. At his worst, Smith will be a good player. But at times last season he was overwhelmed at the point of attack (North Carolina) and he wasn’t always the most effective Irish player on the field in a given contest (Joe Schmidt and Sheldon Day both, at times, fared better than did Smith in our film reviews.)
In his third season as a starter, a repeat effort of his 2014 season would be “unacceptable” for a player with Smith’s potential and undeniable dedication to his craft. Much is expected of Smith, and fair or not, he’s judged by a different standard.
The physical comparison most often referenced with Smith is to Kory Minor, Notre Dame’s standout four-year starter from 1995-98. Both an outstanding pass rusher and athlete in coverage, Minor’s role was that of a true outside linebacker and at times rush end, which is far different than Smith’s lot in the Irish defense.
In terms of a statistical comparison, Smith is on par with his predecessor in five-star repute, Manti Te’o. The comparison between the all-star pair after two seasons is striking:
-- Smith: 26 games/26 starts, 176 tackles including 15.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks, 6 passes defended, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and 1 recovery, 8 QB Hurries.
-- Te’o: 25 games/23 starts, 197 tackles including 15 for loss, 2 sacks, 4 PD, 1 forced fumble and 4 QB Hurries.
In terms of comparison or projecting Smith’s junior campaign, it’s relevant to note that while outstanding, Te’o’s junior year was nowhere near as remarkable as his well-documented senior season, though he was a terror in the offensive backfield in Year 3:
Te’o 2011 (Junior): 128 tackles including a whopping 13.5 for loss, 5 sacks, 2 PD, 2 QB Hurries but no interceptions, forced fumbles or recoveries. Oddly, Te’o didn’t recover a fumble or pick off a pass until his senior season, when he registered a combined – and remarkable – nine.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith secure a combined five or six turnovers this fall.
A consensus five-star prospect across the recruiting services spectrum, Smith started from the outset, put forth a pair of single-game defensive MVP efforts within his first six games as a player (at Michigan and vs. Arizona State) and earned freshman All-America status in a 13-game, 13-start rookie season.
He followed that with another 13 consecutive starts and second team All-America honors as a sophomore. Smith embodies the five-star recruit that meets realistic expectations as a college football player through two seasons.
In short, if every Irish recruit, regardless of ability, approached his craft as does Smith, Notre Dame would never endure another 8-5 season.
There’s a lot to work with in this category including the aforementioned 2013 outing against Arizona State in Arlington in which Smith posted nine tackles including, officially, 1.5 tackles for loss. Not included in the official statistics was a pair of sacks by Smith at the shadow of the Irish goal line, both credited instead as “team sacks.”
But Smith’s best to date likely occurred last October against Stanford when the sophomore recorded a career-high 14 tackles including 2.5 for loss and a sack. Smith registered three additional tackles that limited Cardinal ball carriers to 0, 1, or 2-yard gains, plus another trio that resulted in three-yard gains on drives that eventually led to Stanford punts.
“Jaylon now has played the Sam (strong side) and he's playing the Will (weakside), we feel like now he has his reads down, a comfort level playing inside, we can now look to a bigger, physical presence on the perimeter (in tandem) with a James Onwualu. So if (and offense) wants to play more physical, we have a guy like Jaylon who could step up and play there.
“Jaylon now allows us in certain situations to move him out on the perimeter if we want to get Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace on the field with Jaylon, we can now do that. We have to be able to look at that to get the right set of linebackers on the field at the same time.” – Brian Kelly near spring’s conclusion.