What to expect from Jaylon Smith

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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.

PRECEDENCE

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.”

TALENT

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.

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”