Notre Dame recruiting: No ordinary Smith

Standout linebacker commit impressive on and off field

Al Lesar Commentary
ND Insider

It didn't take long for Matt Millhouse to realize he had something special. Fort Wayne Luers High School's football program had been one of Indiana's best for more than a decade. Time there is calculated by the number of state titles.

Yet, in 2009, the Knights had the rarity of a freshman starting at outside linebacker.

"I can't remember that happening before (or since)," said Millhouse, the team's defensive coordinator.

Jaylon Smith was dynamic; a playmaker, even before he knew better.

Smith was a mainstay of the Luers defense that was instrumental in a run to the Class 2-A state championship game against Monrovia.

In the space of a couple of minutes during that game, Smith's emotions ran the gamut.

"Everything I was doing was wrong," Smith recalled. "I remember going to the sideline saying, 'I'm giving it my all, but everything is wrong.'"

Late in the game, it was the first -- and only -- time Smith had ever taken himself out of a game.

"Monrovia was a run-heavy team," Millhouse said. "(Smith) came to the sidelines and said, 'I don't know what's going on; I'm getting dominated.' I said, 'You're a freshman. Relax. Just go out there and have fun.'"

Smith took the advice to heart. Monrovia had the ball while trailing 24-17 late in the fourth quarter; fourth-and-2 on its own 20. Monrovia ran its play right at Smith.

Big mistake. Lost yardage. Game over.

"I watched the replay on the video screen (in Lucas Oil Stadium), it was a textbook fundamental play," Millhouse said. "I said to myself, 'This guy's gonna be good.'"

"I beat my guy and got a tackle for loss," Smith said. "I remember running off the field yelling. I didn't even know how to celebrate."

Since then, the legend has grown. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Smith has developed into, by most accounts, the best high school linebacker in the country and will be the centerpiece of the Notre Dame recruiting class that will sign Wednesday.

With four team state titles and selection as the Butkus Award winner given to high school players, he's gotten the celebrating thing down pat.

"He's a freak of an athlete," Millhouse said. "When you take a step back, you can appreciate the hard work he has put in mentally. He's dedicated to the game."

Smith can cover like a corner; rush like an end; stop the run like a nose tackle.

"(He's a) different kind of kid," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for "He's like 'Plastic Man.' That's our nickname for him because he's so flexible. He's able to get skinny when he needs to get skinny. He's already skinny, but I'm talking like fit into crevices that just don't exist. He's so long, so fast, so good in coverage. You rarely see a guy like that who's got quick-twitch ability who can cover so much ground so quickly.

"He's the type of guy who's the rare linebacker that you could line up against a slot receiver and have him cover him in short space. You could line him up and say, 'you've got to shadow the quarterback,' or 'your responsibility is the running back in the flat,' and know that he's going to make those plays. Plus, he's tremendous off the edge as a pass-rusher."

"He could have played safety if we needed him to," said Millhouse. "So many times, teams have run away from him.

"Heading into the Andrean (semistate) game (this past season), our middle linebacker was out with a concussion. Andrean runs the read-option to perfection. All week I was wondering, 'How are we going to stop this?' Their quarterback was able to run sideline-to-sideline.

"We didn't have any reservations moving Jaylon (from outside to middle linebacker). His knowledge of the game made the move so easy."

Smith watched YouTube video of former Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te'o to get a feel for the position.

"In the championship game, we moved him around -- outside linebacker, inside linebacker, defensive end. We were looking for the best matchups. He was able to impact our defense in so many ways."

Little doubt he should have an immediate impact at Notre Dame. Millhouse projects Smith as a good fit at the linebacker position presently filled by Dan Fox -- plenty of coverage responsibilities, spiced with run support.

As much as his physical presence should be a positive influence on the Irish, Smith's character and personality will be factors.

* This is a guy with a 3.1 GPA at Luers, who isn't underestimating the value of a Notre Dame degree.

"I'm excited," Smith said. "I'm getting ready to get the same (Notre Dame) degree as my valedictorian (from Luers). I'll get out of there debt-free."

* This is the same guy who has worked at Burger King just for the experience of having a job.

"Working at Burger King has been a great experience," he said. "It's something I wanted to do because I won't be able to work in college. I've been able to keep out of my mother's pocket (for spending money), which is nice."

* This is a guy who held true to his commitment to Notre Dame, despite a few days of an uncertain job status of head coach Brian Kelly, and the bizarre circus surrounding the Te'o hoax.

"Notre Dame will be Notre Dame, regardless," Smith said. "The important thing is to do everything right.

"The Golden Dome is not going to go anywhere."

* This is a guy who kept his Luers team together en route to a four-peat this fall, even though head coach Matt Lindsay was dismissed mid-season after 33 years at the school for "violations of school and (Fort Wayne-South Bend) Diocesan policies."

"I had to take a leadership role," Smith said. "This team had to stick together. My leadership had to become more vocal. Without our head coach there, we had to lead by example. We were playing for him. Everything we had done in the past wasn't going to be wasted. We had to keep our eye on the prize."

"Jaylon's character sets him above the rest," said Millhouse. "The area he's made the most progress in is his ability to be a leader and to be consistent in what he does.

"He was able to see the big picture at an early age. He was able to capitalize on opportunities where others would fall short."

When the opportunity at Notre Dame came about, he didn't hesitate.

But he did ask for one thing.

"Before he went to visit Notre Dame, he wanted to find the movie 'Rudy' so bad," Millhouse said. "We got him one. I always thought Notre Dame was in the driver's seat. His reasons were not all related to football, but the season they just had didn't hurt."

"I had watched 'Rudy' before (he got one in anticipation of the visit), but the movie was inspiring," Smith said. "Here was a guy without talent, who had such a great work ethic. It's something to look up to. I figure a guy with five-star talent can have that same sort of work ethic."

That could make for a pretty good combination.

Rudy with a body and ability.

It shouldn't take long for the Irish to realize they've got something special.

Staff writer Al Lesar


Notre Dame recruiting: No ordinary Smith