When you’re as talented as Notre Dame junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, there isn’t much that can happen on a football field that takes you by surprise.
Not so in South Africa where he and six other Notre Dame football players took part in an academic-related trip this summer, led by Notre Dame psychology professor Anre Venter.
“Museums…a two-day safari…So many amazing experiences,” said Smith, who was joined by football players Corey Robinson, Jerry Tillery, Doug Randolph, Mark Harrell, Scott Daly and Josh Anderson. “It definitely won’t be my last time in Africa.
“That’s why I took advantage of the opportunity to come to Notre Dame. It’s definitely a global university.”
Smith was, you could say, worldwide before his eye-opening experiences abroad. From every pre-season All-American chart to a special designation – one of the “freaks” of college football – Jaylon Smith’s name is on the lips of the college football world that pinpoints the nation’s elite.
Whether it’s from his humble beginnings in Fort Wayne, Ind., or the fact he’s a product of Notre Dame’s carefully-cultivated sports information system, Smith has taken his fame with blinders on.
Despite talk of All-American teams, Sports Illustrated covers (with offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley), the Heisman Trophy, or speculation about his departure for the NFL after the 2015 season, Smith equates individual success with the outcome of the upcoming Notre Dame campaign.
“For me, it’s not about my performance,” said Smith, who led the 2014 Irish in tackles (112) and tackles for loss (9). “I just really want a national championship. It’s all about the team. How do I make other players better?
“It’s holding each other accountable. A higher standard. Making sure the No. 1 thing is to accomplish the mission.”
The vision is clear for Smith because of the cloudy conclusion to last year’s season. Riding high at 6-0 en route to Florida State, the Irish lost a heartbreaker, and then lost the heart of the defense when fellow linebacker Joe Schmidt was felled by a season-ending ankle injury in the eighth game of the season.
Four November losses – due largely to the failures of the defense – shined a light on the 2012 Manti Te’o-led charge that set the standard for Smith as a verbally-committed senior in high school.
“There were times last year when we separated as a team,” said Smith, who checks in occasionally with Te’o via text. “(We were) not fully compact. There were so many injuries. We didn’t handle the adversity like we should have. We’re definitely building our culture.”
At the forefront of Smith’s plan is assuming a role he was forced into as a sophomore with Schmidt on the sideline. Suddenly, it was Smith who had to make the defensive calls and provide the physical and emotional stability that were the earmark of Schmidt’s leadership.
“It forced me to understand and learn the full concepts of our defense (as opposed to) solely relying on half of my responsibilities and the people to the other side of the field,” Smith said.
“My assignments have always been pretty solid. But when you understand the full concept of the defense, it makes everything much easier. Communication is the key. It’s not about your success. Now it’s how well I can help my teammates be better.”
First and foremost – particularly with Schmidt back and so many natural leaders coming to the surface during the pre-season – Jaylon Smith needs to be a great football player for the Irish defense in 2015. And yet more than at any time in his first two years in the program, Smith is leading through his play and his voice.
“Jaylon desperately wants to be called upon at any time to be that guy out front, and we have no problem doing that,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “I will take him side-by-side with me anywhere I go.
“It’s great that he holds others accountable. More than anything else, our players emulate his work ethic, the way he plays and practices every day, and they know that he’s not afraid to tell them how to do it. They’re quite afraid of him getting in their face if they don’t do it the right way.”
Smith downplays his “bark” with his teammates, choosing instead to focus on the message over the menace.
“I’m going to keep it real with everyone,” Smith said. “There are certain guys you can get on and others you have to pull aside. You have to understand which way to lead this particular player. You don’t critique the performer; you critique the performance.”
It’s the combination of physical skills and the confidence to lead the Irish defense into battle that has defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder creating ways to maximize the weapon that is Jaylon Smith.
“Any time you see a guy with a great physical trait, in my mind, I go to how many position crossovers the player can play,” VanGorder said. “That’s filling the plate of a lot of players that just can’t do it. Jaylon can do it.
“Jaylon’s worked hard on the game of football – to learn it and to see the big picture of it. When you get the big picture involved, it creates scenarios where you can play multiple positions, and that’s where he is.”
Smith rarely was asked to rush the quarterback or create havoc in the backfield for the Irish defense in ’14. While he still managed to record seven quarterback hurries, he had a modest 3.5 sacks. That’s a number that easily could double in ’15 if VanGorder truly unleashes Smith.
“I love pass rushing,” Smith said. “I wasn’t asked to do a lot of that last year. It was more so coverage.
“If I had a say so, that’s something I’d definitely want to do more, and I think I’m going to get that opportunity to pass rush. That’s something I can do. I wasn’t presented with it much last year, but it’s a new year. I think I’ll have an opportunity to show off that rushing ability.”
The making of Jaylon Smith – the freakish athlete, a leader on the football field, and the well-rounded individual off it – is all coming together in 2015.
Add spokesman for all that is right about Notre Dame and how his trip to South Africa was an experience that can benefit him in the football team dynamic.
“It speaks to what Notre Dame offers,” said Smith of the South Africa experience. “It’s not just football. It’s not just an education. It’s overall relationships. You have to be a part of it to get the full feeling.
“The trip to South Africa makes you understand that there are different cultures on the team. You have to be able to relate with any group on the team.”
With the upcoming decision to return to Notre Dame or take his skills to the NFL after his junior season, Smith puts his blinders back on.
“I just want a national championship,” Smith said. “That’s the only thing I want to worry about now. The sky’s the limit. It’s just how good do we want to be? Accomplishing the mission is what we’re focused on right now.”