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.

Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30

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Notre Dame and South Carolina will meet for the first time in nearly 40 years in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 at 3:30 ET (ABC). The Irish and Gamecocks have not played since 1984, a South Carolina win in South Bend. That was part of Notre Dame’s struggles (going 12-11 in 1984 and 1985) that led to Lou Holtz being hired; Holtz, of course, went on to coach the Gamecocks for six seasons after he left the Irish.

Though the No. 21 Irish (8-4) finished the season strongly, including competing gamely at USC a week ago in a 38-27 loss, a driving storyline over the next month will be wondering if head coach Marcus Freeman can handle this bowl game better than the second half of the Fiesta Bowl faceplant last year in his first game as Notre Dame’s leader.

No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) enjoyed an even more impressive finish to the season, knocking both Tennessee and Clemson out of the College Football Playoff in its final two games of the season. Not that gambling spreads mean anything on the football field, but to give an idea how unexpected those two wins were, realize the Gamecocks were expected to lose them by a combined 37.5 points and instead won them by a combined 26 points.

There may be some rough parallels between South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer and Freeman, though Beamer is a year ahead in his head-coaching career.

Beamer was an unexpected hire in Columbia in 2021, never having been a head coach before and most recently the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Oklahoma for three seasons. The Gamecocks went 7-6 in his first year, his head-coaching inexperience perhaps rearing its head as they lost their first three games against Power-Five competition and four of their first five, the exception coming against worse-off Vanderbilt.

Thus, the surge to end the 2022 season stands out, particularly since it again took until October to notch a win against a Power-Five opponent, losing to both Arkansas and, more understandably, Georgia in September.

South Carolina found its most success this season through the air, led by former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. He averaged 230.5 yards per game and 7.9 yards per attempt while completing 66.6 percent of his passes. The Gamecocks managed just 123.3 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per attempt.

Their rushing defense is one of the worst in the country, which could play right into the Irish offensive strength. Opponents gained 0.194 expected points per rush attempt against South Carolina, the No. 123 ranking in the country, per cfb-graphs.com.

Notre Dame fell to Ohio State, 21-10, to open Freeman’s genuine tenure, a worthwhile loss though one quickly diminished when the Irish fell to Marshall just a week later. Of course, the Buckeyes’ relied on that season-opening win to successfully burgeon their Playoff résumé today.

The Irish already know they will be without both senior cornerback Cam Hart and junior quarterback Drew Pyne in the bowl game. Hart announced last week he will return for a fifth season at Notre Dame, but a shoulder injury will sideline him this month, while Pyne announced Friday he intends to enter the transfer portal, presumably when it officially opens tomorrow.

Star tight end Michael Mayer will almost certainly opt out of the bowl game, his top-20 draft stock assured, and senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey could logically, as well.

Notre Dame nearly ended up in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28, per reports. The ACC could place the Irish in any of three bowls, the top tier of ACC-affiliated bowls below the Orange Bowl, with some input from the bowls and from the University. That give-and-take seemingly delayed the announcement for a stretch of Sunday.

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

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Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter