Sept. 11, 2014
By: Todd Burlage
As a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., and now a University of Notre Dame student-athlete living in South Bend, this weekend in Indianapolis isn't a true homecoming for linebacker Jaylon Smith, but it may as well be.
As a high school player at Fort Wayne Bishop Luers from 2009-12, Smith became a member of a small and elite "4-for-4" fraternity after leading his Knights to four consecutive Class 2A state football titles right here at Lucas Oil Stadium. So we'll excuse the Irish sophomore if he's feeling very comfortable, and even a little nostalgic, during tonight's game against Purdue.
"I feel blessed to have played and won those titles and to get the opportunity to go back and play one more time in Indianapolis with Notre Dame is going to be incredible," says Smith, who along with teammates senior Nick Martin (Chatard), junior Sheldon Day (Warren Central), and junior John Turner (Cathedral) have experienced the joy of winning a high school state title in this building. "It feels amazing to get another chance to play there again, and to get that opportunity to essentially return home for this game."
A four-year starter at Luers, Smith stuffed his trophy case with both individual and team awards during his time there. In addition to his four state championship rings, Smith won the 2012 Butkus award as the best prep linebacker in the country. He was a first-team selection on every high-school all-American team, played in the 2012 U.S. Army All-American Bowl and he also won the 2012 Mr. Football award in Indiana after his senior season.
So many great moments during a distinguished prep career, but the one that stands out most for Smith comes from the state title game as a sophomore in Lucas Oil Stadium in 2010.
With his Knights struggling offensively and leading North Putnam just 7-0 in the third quarter, Smith recorded dominating sacks on consecutive plays that immediately changed the course and momentum of the game. Following Smith's lead, Luers scored two quick touchdowns after the game-changing sacks for a 20-0 advantage that was never threatened in the 26-14 Bishop Luers win.
"Those sacks really got the momentum back for us," says Smith, who still gets to Fort Wayne whenever possible to watch and support his former team from the sidelines. "And we carried it on from there. That was a very special moment that I will never forget."
To give some indication of how dominating a player Smith was in high school, he not only became the best linebacker in the country -- 37.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks during his junior and senior seasons -- but as a tailback those two seasons, he also rushed for nearly 2,600 yards, scored 43 touchdowns and caught 27 passes for six more scores in becoming the most coveted Notre Dame recruit since all-American linebacker Manti Te'o.
"It's truly a blessing to be mentioned sometimes in the same sentence as Manti," Smith says of the inevitable comparisons. "It's motivating, it's inspiring, and now it is up to me to work hard, carry on the tradition of great linebackers at Notre Dame and find ways to someday even be better than Manti. In my eyes, Manti is a legend at Notre Dame."
Football has always come naturally for Smith, in part because of his God-given talent and the example set by his brother, Rod Smith, a senior reserve tailback at Ohio State. Rod set Fort Wayne career records at Harding High School with 6,625 rushing yards and 66 touchdowns.
"Always being challenged by my brother growing up, always being in his shadow, all the high expectations living up to him," Jaylon says, "and then I stepped out on my own to make my own name and I really just excelled from there."
Sink Or Swim
With standout Irish linebacker Danny Spond holding down the starting drop outside linebacker position going into training camp in 2013, Smith expected to gradually become part of the defensive rotation, but not as a starter. That all changed when severe migraine headaches forced the end of Spond's playing career and made Smith the first true freshman to start a season opener at linebacker for Notre Dame since Kory Minor in 1995.
Former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco called the drop linebacker one of the most complex and cerebral positions on the defense because of the myriad responsibilities that came with it. Smith was responsible for everything from protecting and sealing the edge in run defense, to covering a wide receiver or tight end against the pass, to attacking from the outside in certain blitz packages -- a lot to ask from a true freshman. But if anyone could handle it, it was Smith.
"Discipline, instincts, pass coverage, so many things that he's grown into," says Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "He's a man, and he's exhibited that in his growth day in and day out. I have not been around many players that have grown so quickly in the game the way he has in a very short period of time."
With just seven tackles in his first three games last season, Smith admitted to being a bit overwhelmed in his new role, not so much because of his slim statistical production, but more just being apprehensive in his assignments. From the outside looking in, Smith's Eureka moment didn't come until game six against Arizona State last October when he recorded nine tackles and forced a key fumble.
Smith's evolution, however, began two games prior against Michigan State when he made a crucial fourth-down stop that sealed the 17-13 win for the Irish and handed the Spartans their only loss of last season.
"Within myself and my team, the Michigan State game is when I first completed all of my assignments and objectives," Smith says. "Really, it was finally just being sound in my role, just being accountable. There were no mental errors. It was the game where everything slowed down for me and I realized it was just football. I've been playing it since I was seven."
Smith hit his stride and steadily improved through last season, finishing second on the team with 6.5 tackles for loss and third with 67 total tackles -- the third most tackles ever for an Irish freshman and the most since Bob Golic set the rookie record with 82 in 1975.
Talk about a quick study.
Of course, being 6-3 and 235 pounds, while carrying the lowest body fat measurement on the team at 3.5 percent and running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, Smith's learning curve flattened fast.
"Jaylon is the definition of specimen," Irish senior linebacker Joe Schmidt says. "He's a pretty unique athlete and you combine that with his desire, with the want to help other people get better, it's pretty awesome."
"There are a lot of athletes like Jaylon but they don't combine what Jaylon has up here [mentally] with his football intellect and his attitude," says Irish outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott of Smith's combination of brains and brawn. "Jaylon is a humble guy and he's got a thirst for learning. It's amazing and he works as hard at it as anybody on our squad. I can't say enough good things about him. I love being around him."
Deja Vu, All Over Again
Of course, nothing is easy in football, and just one season after being asked to learn and apply the intricacies and assignments of a college defense as a true freshman, Smith is doing it all over again this year as a sophomore. He's moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker as part of the 4-3 scheme brought in by new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
The position switch will allow Smith to fully utilize his amazing physical gifts and get him involved on every play instead of just the ones that come his way. "Last year, all teams had to do was go the opposite way and I was taken out of the play," Smith explains.
The transition from outside to inside linebacker hasn't necessarily been seamless but the Irish coaches say once it's complete, Smith's production numbers will skyrocket because this scheme is designed to always have him around the ball. He believes that the biggest challenge playing inside is learning how to take on blocks from beefy offensive linemen rather than blocks from smaller tight ends or wide receivers.
"It's my second year at this level learning a whole new scheme so I just had to take the same approach," Smith says. "This was just a process; it was a transition. I really don't define it as challenging, just some of the extra hard work I had to put in learning a new scheme."
There's little doubt that Smith will evolve into one of the best linebackers ever to play at Notre Dame. He's already a team leader, a preseason all-American and in many respects the face of the Irish defense. But humility, drive and discipline will always keep him from being satisfied, and that's what makes this very unique player one for the ages as both a student-athlete and a Notre Dame man.
"Playing here is everything I ever dreamed of," Smith says. "It's kind of hard to explain Notre Dame if you haven't been here. You hear it all the time, `Notre Dame is a special place.' It's even more special than I expected it to be."