Irish A-to-Z: Jaylon Smith

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Coming off of a 100-tackle sophomore season that earned him mention on the AP’s All-American second team, Jaylon Smith returns for his third season in South Bend with the expectations for greatness even higher. After spending 2014 learning how to play linebacker from the inside out, Smith now will be asked to do something he did in spurts last season: Dominate.

Notre Dame’s finest defensive athlete in a very long time, Smith is a fixture on preseason All-Star teams and magazine covers. But if he’s going to be the star that many expect, he’ll need to do more than just show himself to be an sporadically great player.

Undoubtedly talented, Smith’s career likely continues in the NFL come 2016. But before that time comes, one truly great season would help cement Notre Dame’s chances as a national title contender.

 

JAYLON SMITH
6’2.5″, 235 lbs.
Junior, No. 9, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A five-star, all-everything recruit, Smith was Notre Dame’s highest ranking defensive player of the recruiting era and second to only Jimmy Clausen, depending on the service.

A US Army All-American, Smith was the Butkus Award winner for best high school linebacker and chose Notre Dame over just about every college in the country. Most impressively, over Ohio State and Urban Meyer, where Smith’s brother was a member of the team.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played and started in all 13 games, the first freshman linebacker to start an opener since Kory Minor. Smith finished third on the team in tackles and second on the team with 6.5 TFLs. The team’s defensive newcomer of the year.

Sophomore Season (2014): Second team All-American and the team’s defensive player of the year. Led the Irish in tackles (total and solo) as well as TFLs with nine, including 3.5 sacks. Made 112 tackles—including 14 against USC—in a season that saw him become a Bednarik Award semifinalist and Butkus Award finalist.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Smith filled the stat-sheet, but he was no Luke Kuechly. He reached triple-digit tackles but the defense didn’t play to its potential down the stretch.

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.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Everything you could ever ask. Smith has made grown men on Twitter drool, breaking down his insane athletic ability and skill-set as they look back on the 2014 season and project him at the next level.

Smith did his best learning on the fly, far from a natural Will linebacker. But for as impressive as last season was, there’s still a feeling that Smith can do more with his talent once he harnesses the mental side of the battle.

It’s hard to say a guy that already projects to be an early first-rounder isn’t all that close to reaching his potential. But that’s what many see in Smith, especially when he’s utilized properly.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

In an era of football where playmakers are king, Smith fits in perfectly at the top of the monarchy. But if I have a complaint about the supremely talented linebacker, it’s that he didn’t do the grunt-work, bare-bones fundamentals that other less-talented players do. As a second-year rising star, it was okay to freelance sometimes. That’s what sophomores do. But being a high-ceiling playmaker and being a rock solid, assignment-correct linebacker? That’s the type of work that’ll differentiate Smith from a guy who could be a great one and a guy who already is a great one.

After Joe Schmidt went down with an injury, Smith’s productivity was a different animal. While his tackle numbers certainly didn’t suffer that badly, the defense did, and Smith’s inability to focus on doing his job well before trying to make the big play sometimes got inverted.

Part of that is learning a new position while also learning a new system. But a year into Brian VanGorder’s system, Smith’s knowledge base should be restocked, allowing him to take his world-class athleticism and turn it into top-shelf production.

We saw Manti Te’o at his best. We referenced Luke Kuechly. Smith’s a better athlete than both of them, and he’ll be used in a variety of different ways that’ll showcase those talents.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, P
Romeo Okwara, DE
James Onwualu, LB
C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
Doug Randolph, LB/DE
Max Redfield, S
Corey Robinson, WR
Trevor Ruhland, OL
CJ Sanders, WR
Joe Schmidt, LB
Elijah Shumate, S