As Notre Dame’s defensive coaches try to deal with their latest champagne problem, linebacker Jaylon Smith seems like a lone constant.
He’s not coming off the field.
With the linebacking corps stocked with talent and Smith one of college football’s most versatile and freaky athletes, Smith was cross-training at outside linebacker on Wednesday, a move both head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had talked about this spring.
Smith’s shift outside returns him to familiar grounds. As a freshman, he played outside in Bob Diaco’s system, a drop linebacker asked to turn and cover more often than setting the edge. Most think his future is outside as well, with the NFL likely using Smith in space.
But after learning to play in the trenches last year because the team needed him on the inside, Smith’s cross-training should open up the depth chart next fall, pairing him with James Onwualu on the outside.
“Jaylon now has played the Sam and he’s playing the Will. We feel like now he has his reads down, a comfort level playing inside. We can now look to a bigger, physical presence on the perimeter with a James Onwualu,” Kelly said of a possible platoon. “So if you want to put a tight end in there and play more physical, we have a guy like Jaylon who could step up and play there.”
Physicality wasn’t necessarily part of Smith’s strengths last season, especially late in the year when teams ran right at Notre Dame’s leading tackler. But a move to the outside allows the heavy banging in the trenches to be Joe Schmidt, Nyles Morgan and Jarrett Grace’s job—a three-for-two that could also include sophomore Greer Martini and early enrollee Te’Von Coney.
“I think we’ve all talked about with Joe Schmidt, now Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan, we have to find a place for those guys. And Te’Von Coney. Those are inside guys,” Kelly said. “We have to be able to get those guys on the field.
“Jaylon now allows us in certain situations to move him out on the perimeter if we want to get Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace on the field with Jaylon, we can now do that. We have to be able to look at that to get the right set of linebackers on the field at the same time.”
That Jarrett Grace has gone from spring success story to a part of the Irish plans is great news. It’s even better for the Irish defense, giving Notre Dame a true thumper that can take reps at the Mike linebacker spot and be up to speed on the mental necessities of the position.
After having little depth in the linebacking corps, the position is now the deepest on the defense. And that allows Smith’s greatest asset—his versatility—to shine through, giving VanGorder essentially a new sports car in the garage.