Current Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has a special place carved out for him in Notre Dame football’s history books. The coaching lifer spent eight years in South Bend, coordinating the defense for Bob Davie, then staying on staff through the transition to Tyrone Willingham, a rare holdover in the house-cleaning that happened after the 2001 season.
Mattison conceded his title of defensive coordinator to Kent Baer, sliding back to defensive line coach. While he did his best to run the Irish recruiting efforts, he helped land a blue-chip recruiting class filled with NFL talent after Willingham’s sparkling first year, before efforts slipped precipitously the next two seasons.
Mattison’s years in South Bend were good ones. His daughter Lisa graduated from Notre Dame, starring for the softball team. But Charlie Weis was hired, Mattison was quickly snatched up by Urban Meyer, joining the Gators staff as the co-defensive coordinator. And from that day forward, he’s been a thorn in the Irish’s side.
Mattison and Meyer went head-to-head with Weis and his staff for multiple players, winning more often than they didn’t. Many accused the former Irish assistants of using negative tactics when dealing with their former stomping grounds, utilizing their first hand knowledge of life under the Golden Dome to swing blue-chip recruits like Omar Hunter and Justin Trattou, becoming a perpetual thrown in Notre Dame’s side ever since both town.
Mattison left the college ranks for three years, coaching linebackers then coordinating John Harbaugh’s Ravens defense. But when Brady Hoke took the Michigan head coaching job, his first call was to his old friend, who returned to the college game and picked up recruiting just where he left off.
That meant going head-to-head with Notre Dame again. And while Mattison has been a worthy adversary coordinating the Wolverines upstart defense, he also hasn’t stopped trying to chase down Irish recruits, something that’s more than fair in today’s cut-throat recruiting world.
But in the case of Jaylon Smith, it didn’t matter.
The Irish’s signature recruit heard the persuasive recruiting pitch Mattison delivered in the days where Brian Kelly considered the Philadelphia Eagles job, but rebuffed the Wolverines and their defensive coordinator all the same.
Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press has more:
When news broke shortly after the BCS title game that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was interviewing with the Philadelphia Eagles, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison took a little trip to Indiana.
He wanted Ft. Wayne Bishop Luers linebacker and Notre Dame commitment Jaylon Smith to know he had options.
“He told me there was still a spot at Michigan for me if anything changed,” Smith said. “I appreciated that, but nothing was going to change. The Golden Dome isn’t going anywhere.”
When Mattison visited with Smith on Jan. 11 — four days after Alabama thumped Notre Dame in the BCS title game, three days after Kelly talked with the Eagles and one day before he turned them down — he was more than impressed, according to Bishop Luers athletic director Jim Huth.
“After the meeting, Mattison came out of the room and just looked at me,” Huth recalled, “and he said, ‘That kid is the real deal. I have talked with hundreds of players in my career and never had a conversation like that.’ ”
Smith wasn’t just a participant in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, he was a captain for the West team. That game also showed his versatility as a player when he put his hand on the ground and attacked as a defensive end.
“And then he can cover like a cornerback,” said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest analyst for Rivals.com, which ranks Smith the No. 3 overall player in the nation. “That’s a freakish athlete. The guy runs a 4.4 40 (yard-dash). He may be the most athletic linebacker I’ve covered in 10 years of doing this. He’s that special.”
For Notre Dame fans looking for a new favorite player, Smith enters the race with a pretty good tagline: “The Golden Dome isn’t going anywhere.”
On the field, Smith is the most highly touted recruit to come to campus since Jimmy Clausen. He’s ranked higher than any defensive player Notre Dame has signed in the recruiting era (Manti Te’o included) and while Smith is slotted to play behind Prince Shembo at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position, there seems little doubt that Smith will find his way onto the field, because there doesn’t look like much that the five-star outside linebacker can’t do when he’s on it.
Smith runs like a cornerback, blitzes like the quickest of edge rushers and even carried the offensive load for his high school team as their running back. In the US Army All-American Bowl workouts and game, he seemed a notch above the rest of the athletes in attendance. While he’ll need to add weight to a frame that carries around 215 pounds, he’s neck in neck with Stephon Tuitt for freakiest athlete on the Irish defense from the day he steps onto campus.
And he’s still carrying a job at the local Burger King in Fort Wayne.
While most of the focus of these final days of recruiting is on the unknowns, there’s no reason to look past a once-in-a-decade recruit like Smith. It might be easy to now, but come September, it will likely be impossible.
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