Aug 24, 2014, 9:34 AM EDT
We are about to get an idea of how good sophomore Jaylon Smith can truly be. That’s because after a season playing a position that does most of its damage off the stat sheet, Smith’s moving inside to the Will linebacker position. After looking at the game from the edge of the defense, Smith will now be staring right down the barrel, a unique athlete that Notre Dame hasn’t seen in quite some time.
Even as a sophomore, Smith is ready to lead. The only underclassmen selected to speak at Media Day last week, Smith’s comfort level off the field reflects the same confidence he shows on the field. Paired with elite physical skills that may be some of the most impressive in the country, and Smith’s an All-American candidate primed to explode in 2014.
Let’s take a closer look at the Fort Wayne native.
6’2.5″ 235 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 9
No defensive player in the Rivals recruiting era has been more heralded than Smith. The No. 3 overall player in his class, Smith was the number one linebacker in the country and the top recruit Notre Dame signed since Jimmy Clausen topped the list.
As a high schooler, Smith won the Butkus Award given to the top prep linebacker, and was a first-team All-American by just about every measure. He was Indiana’s Mr. Football and the top player in the Midwest.
Brian Kelly beat out Ohio State, where Smith’s brother plays running back for Urban Meyer, for Jaylon’s pledge, a commitment made in June that lasted until Signing Day. That might have impressed Kelly just as much as the talent he showed on the field.
“We could list all of these things, but the thing that’s most impressive is the character of this young man and his energy,” Kelly said on Signing Day. “He just has it. When he walks into a room, the room kind of lightens up, and that’s the kind of personality that he is, and he is one tough football player, as well. He’s got all the things that you’re looking for, that quickness, that ability to strike. He can play any position really… He’s also going to be a great leader here, and I see great things for Jaylon Smith.”
Freshman Season (2013): Played and started all 13 games, the first freshman linebacker since Kory Minor to start the opener (1995). Smith finished third on the team in tackles with 67. He finished second on the team with 6.5 TFLs. Also added a fumble recovery, forced fumble, interception, QB hurry and three pass breakups.
Smith won the team’s defensive newcomer of the year award.
Smith can do just about whatever he wants athletically. Chiseled from granite and weighing 235 pounds with around three percent body fat, Smith is the closest thing to Clark Kent that the Irish have on the roster. While he spent the spring learning the Will linebacker position, and talked on Media Day about dealing with “blurring his vision,” Smith says he’s mastered his new job, a matter of fact declaration.
That’s a scary proposition, and one of the big reasons why Smith can be as good of a player as Notre Dame’s had in a very long time, even acknowledging Manti Te’o’s historic 2012 season.
With no ceiling on Smith’s talents, a stat-line like former Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly’s could be in order. The former Eagles tackling machine has continued that type of insane production at the next level, and might be the standard for what Smith’s capable of doing as well.
When I asked Smith about his personal goals for the season, I specifically wanted to know if he planned on making 100 tackles this season. He smiled, unwilling to take the bait. But as we saw during flashes of fall camp, Smith is no longer playing outside on the far side of the field, and it’ll be difficult for him to not make big plays.
Count on seeing him as a blitzer. Ask Tarean Folston how blocking him went. He’ll meet running backs in the hole, just like he did at practice last week when he almost sent Cam McDaniel into orbit. He’ll also occasionally be asked to drop into coverage, and even with KeiVarae Russell on the team, I still think Smith is Notre Dame’s best cover corner.
Staying healthy is all that stands in the way of a monster season. With the Irish young and inexperienced along the front seven, Smith’s going to have as much on his shoulders as he can handle.
That’s a very good thing for Notre Dame.
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