With debilitating migraine headaches ending Danny Spond’s football career during fall camp, the door has opened for freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith to play a major role in the Irish defense. The top prep linebacker in the country arrived in South Bend with immense expectations, but with a crowded linebacking corps among the deepest positions on the Irish roster, finding a role for the freakishly athletic Fort Wayne native seemed to be one of Bob Diaco’s biggest challenges.
That’s all been erased with Spond’s retirement. While the coaching staff discussed a two-man platoon with junior Ben Councell, Smith brings a skill-set that nobody on the Irish roster can match. While the learning curve for young players in this system has always been fairly steep, Smith might very well be a horse of a different color.
Let’s take a deep dive into Jaylon Smith and his upcoming season.
While most Irish fans have done their best to forget the game’s very existence, one very incredible number stands out when thinking about Notre Dame’s last second loss to Michigan in ’11 under the lights: Zero. That’s the number of snaps freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt took against Denard Robinson in company. While Tuitt’s season was pock-marked with goose eggs (one at Purdue after missing a class, and two late in the season while battling mono), Lynch ended up playing 55% of the team’s defensive snaps, with the Michigan game being the lone Saturday where the mercurial freshman failed to enter the game. (To put that decision into context, Hafis Williams took 13 snaps against the Wolverines.)
The point of all this isn’t to get Irish fans riled up about not-too-ancient history, but rather to illustrate a very important point. Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco won’t play a freshman, no matter the talent, if he doesn’t know how to do is job correctly.
Of course, necessity is the mother of invention.
Last season, that was never more clear than in the case of KeiVarae Russell. Entering training camp as a running back, Russell swapped numbers and positions and headed to defense, learning how to play cornerback on the fly. Schematically, Diaco was able to protect his young cornerback with vanilla coverage schemes and over-the-top safety help. But Russell found himself running with elite wide receivers all season, facing Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, and top-flight wide receivers against Miami,Oklahoma, BYU and of course Alabama.
Kelly isn’t against playing freshmen, and as he continues to recruit elite prep prospects, he’ll continue to give them opportunities to work their way into the rotation. No recruit better fits that classification than Smith, a highly versatile weapon that can fulfill multiple roles.
OPPONENTS’ SCHEMES & PERSONNEL GROUPINGS
As we saw over the past few seasons, one of the key factors in Bob Diaco’s defense is personnel groupings. The Irish defensive coordinator utilizes multiple fronts, splitting time nearly equally between three and four down linemen.
Those decisions are often predicated by opponent. And as Diaco was asked about playing time being split between Smith and Councell, he went with some garage logic to try and make sense of it all.
“One’s a flat-head screwdriver and one’s a Phillips head screwdriver,” Diaco explained. “So when you have a screw that you need to screw in that has a Phillips head, you better grab the Phillips head screwdriver.”
That might not do much for most of us, but decoding Diaco’s quote requires a bit of context, and we’ve been provided that over the past few seasons watching the Irish defense mix and match against opponents. Against bruising offenses like Michigan State or Stanford, Councell has the bulk to play inside the box. When opponents try and spread the Irish out, expect to see more of Smith, who at 230 pounds, can still run with any wide receiver.
During his media day comments, Kelly added some clarity to the platoon, helping to explain some of the intricacies that come with playing the ‘Dog’ (or Drop) linebacker and what both players bring to the position.
“When you look at that position, there’s so much going on to the wide field, formationally, adjustments, pressures,” Kelly said. “First of all, Ben has a lot of experience there. Jaylon has done remarkably well in such a short period of time, the picking up the defense, and certainly has the athleticism to cover space.
“You have two guys, one who’s already 250 plus pounds in Ben Councell, that can obviously play over a tight end. If you want to play real physical and have a fullback in the game, play that kind of game, Ben suits that very well, although he can play in space.
“If you want to go three wide, if you want to play an open set, Jaylon has incredible athleticism to be able to play in space. So we really think we’ve got two players there and the depth at that position that we’re very, very lucky, in losing a player like Danny Spond, to have those two guys. They’ve done very, very well.”
Of course, one thing that probably outweighs everything is Smith’s talent. Smith brings a raw athleticism at the linebacker position that rarely exists in any program, not just Notre Dame. Last year’s Indiana Mr. Football led his high school program to its fourth straight 2A state championship with Smith carrying the load at running back and starring at linebacker. One look at his highlight reel from high school and you begin to understand the football player Kelly brought to South Bend (beating out Urban Meyer and Ohio State, where Smith’s brother is a running back).
Having a brother play at an elite level has certainly helped Smith with the intricacies of the game. So has playing at one of the more successful prep programs in Indiana. That knowledge base was on display this summer when Smith asked fifth-year linebacker Dan Fox to watch film.
“When he came in during the summer he was asking me if I wanted to watch some film,” Fox recalled. “So we get in the film room and he’s saying some things that took me a little while to pick up on and he knew it right away. So I was impressed by his knowledge of the game. Being so young as a freshman and he knows certain things about the game that really impressed me.”
Just as impressive as his knowledge base is his versatility. While Diaco compared Smith to a Phillips-head screwdriver, he may really be a Swiss Army knife. There’s no telling how dangerous Smith could be rushing the passer, but he’ll immediately impact the Irish’s pass defense. Outside of Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, there’s no defender the Irish would rather put on an island with a wide receiver, and that’s certainly saying something considering Smith is a 230-pound linebacker.
With a front seven anchored by Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, the recipe for beating the Irish will be to spread the Irish out and take aim at the defense in space. That’s where Smith will likely thrive early in his career, capable of running down receivers and running backs with his legitimate 4.5 speed. While Irish fans fretted about the late departure of Eddie Vanderdoes this spring, Smith has always been the anchor of this recruiting class, and never more so than after the loss of Spond.
PROJECTING THE FUTURE
It’s foolish to try and guess a stat-line for a player whose impact might best be felt off the books. But there’s every reason to believe that Smith should make an impact behind the line of scrimmage, as a tackler in the open field, and as a guy that will be dynamic in coverage.
Ben Councell is a solid player who is probably the best fit for the Dog linebacker position Kelly and Diaco envision in their base defense. But Smith is a star in the making. The position will be a platoon for only as long as Smith needs it to be, with Councell the player who eventually turns into a situational run stopper.
Losing a top-shelf player like Danny Spond is never easy. But it’s opened a door for Smith, who we’ll likely see sprint through it, jump-starting a career with lofty aspirations sooner than many expected.