“I think they were all first round.”
Jaylon Smith’s frank and obvious-to-anyone that has watched him operate over the last three seasons draft evaluation was received amid knowing chuckles Tuesday morning as he met with the media in Scottsdale.
Smith will likely play his last college football game Friday against Ohio State. His skillset, not to mention dedication, will translate well at the professional level.
A fifth-year senior, fellow inside linebacker and team captain Joe Schmidt is definitively playing his final collegiate contest.
“He's been the heart of the defense, bringing that same mentality,” said Smith of the 2014 team MVP.” You can expect what you're going to get out of Joe. You know when he's in the room. He's just a great impact for the team and for the university.”
They’re not exactly the odd couple – both are intelligent, instinctive, tough, dedicated football lifers – but their skills are disparate. So too are they career arcs as Schmidt peaked pre-injury in 2014 while Smith’s star shined brightest this fall as a junior and notably his most recent contest, a dispiriting loss at Stanford.
Notre Dame’s defense couldn’t have functioned without the former and couldn’t have won nearly as many games without the latter, and the Irish are 17-3 when the two played together as the defense’s mike and will linebackers.
Losses were by four points (to #2 Florida State on the last play) and twice by two points (at #1 Clemson and at #6 Stanford, also both on the final play).
Both have re-focused that latter disappointment into a final, singular mission.
“Now you can count (remaining practices) on one hand, the amount you have left with this football team,” said Schmidt of bowl week. “When you're exhausted, when you just finished a tough period in practice, it gives you a little extra juice. Obviously so does Ohio State, knowing what they can do on offense – that provides us a little extra juice. I'm looking forward to this weekend.”
THE LAST STAND
Though Schmidt has already eviscerated the odds stacked against him as a 2011 preferred walk-on, it’s fair to offer a far greater challenge exists in terms of translating his game and skillset to the professional level.
Then again, Schmidt’s greatest attribute – the quick-trigger recognition that ignites inside his helmet – makes many things possible between the lines.
“He's unique. It's been unbelievable coaching him,” said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of Schmidt. “From the first day where I didn't see anything that would tell me of the growth, the mental abilities of the game were where they were. To watch it grow, to watch his leadership position grow, watch the guys gravitate to him, it's been outstanding.
“Then just player-coach, the way we can converse and talk the game with a young player is unique. I'll miss that.”
Though Schmidt reigns as the defense’s two-season rudder, VanGorder noted that the unit benefitted not only from Smith’s unique athletic gifts, but his drive and passion to be the best.
“I think what makes him unique is he's way ahead of most college players respective to his obsession with being a great player. That involves a lot of preparation time, film study, a lot of questions.
“He's even gotten to the point where he really looks and almost demands that you stay on him. He wants to constantly get better.”
The player Schmidt affectionately referred to as “a mutant” in August will have to elevate his game again if the Irish defense is to keep the Buckeyes potent offense under control. Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett represent the best RB/QB rushing tandem the Irish defense has faced during the six-year Brian Kelly era.
“I don't look at anything as a concern, I think it's just a great challenge playing against a great running back; a quarterback who can run very well as well,” said Smith. “Really just looking forward to that opportunity.”
Their last together, and perhaps the most challenging among 21 games as an inside linebacker pair.
“At times we played extremely good football, exceptional football,” said Schmidt of his unit. “Really I think in this game we're trying to be consistent, put together a complete game. I don't think any of us want to look back and think, All right, we played great for 70 plays, then we gave up a couple big ones. That's not what we want to do.
“We want to make sure we eliminate those big plays and put together a complete effort in this game.”