For the second time in four years, the best linebacker in the land is from Notre Dame. Junior Jaylon Smith won the Butkus Award yesterday, given to college football’s top linebacker. That’s the second major win for Smith in as many days, named to USA Today’s All-American first team—with the chance to follow Manti Te’o’s footsteps as both a Butkus winner and consensus All-American as well.
Smith’s win came in an interesting year for linebackers. Preseason favorites Scooby Wright and Myles Jack went down with injuries. Smith’s upside and gigantic pro potential likely won him the award over Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, who statistically had a big season as well.
Awards at the end of the year do more than put more hardware on the shelves of the Gug. They help recruit talented athletes, giving coaches someone to point to as they help blue-chip prospects imagine themselves filling Smith’s shoes. That’ll be happening this weekend, as Notre Dame hosts a group of recruits for their annual awards show, and will likely play into the recruiting decision of a dynamic defensive prospect like Daelin Hayes, who plans to announce his college choice on Thursday.
Smith’s kudos also likely silence some of the criticism of Brian VanGorder. In his two seasons playing under VanGorder, Smith’s stats exploded. Confined to the Dog linebacker position under Bob Diaco, Smith’s best work went mostly undetected, his impact felt more off the stat sheet than on it. (To be fair to Diaco, he was also a true freshman playing college football for the first time.) Shifting to the Will linebacker and moving all over the field, Smith’s play this season was his most consistent, and only a fraction of what he could do if he stuck around for a fourth season, a decision that doesn’t seem likely considering his current draft stock.
Smith is the first defender to win both the high school and collegiate version of the trophy. He’s a rare 5-star prospect who has delivered everything that was expected from him, his rapid ascent the product of opportunity, good coaching and elite skills.
With a request in to the NFL’s advisory board and a meeting with Brian Kelly still upcoming, Smith’s final game as a Notre Dame linebacker may come against Ohio State. It’s a contest that’ll mean quite a bit to him, playing a team where his brother played and matching up against All-American running back Ezekiel Elliott.