Could Notre Dame target Caleb Kelly be next Jaylon Smith?

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SAN ANTONIO — When Caleb Kelly sees Jaylon Smith, he sees a football career he would like to mirror.

But instead of dreaming about becoming a consensus All-American, Butkus Award winner and projected first-round draft pick, the senior linebacker recruit is starting with the basics.

While on his official visit to Notre Dame in December, Kelly took note of Smith’s stance. He saw the Irish junior move efficiently at the snap of the ball thanks to sound body positioning. Now Kelly’s trying to figure out how to implement it into his own game.

“I saw him in practice and it was just explosive,” Kelly said Monday following practice for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. “He got out a lot faster. I felt like that would be smart to do because I know sometimes I kind of wait a little bit before I get out of my stance. I’m not always comfortable in my stance. His legs were kind of wider and more of a forward lean. I did it today and I felt way more comfortable than I normally do.”

Notre Dame’s coaching staff wouldn’t mind if the Fresno, Calif. product (Clovis West) found a similar comfort in trying to fill Smith’s shoes. The Irish are in a three-team race to signing day with Oklahoma and Oregon for the coveted linebacker prospect.

Rivals ranks Kelly as a five-star recruit, the No. 4 outside linebacker and No. 17 player regardless of position in the 2016 class. 247Sports slates him as a four-star prospect and the No. 2 outside linebacker.

Not long ago, the Irish were more pretenders than contenders in Kelly’s recruitment. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder had scratched plans to visit South Bend multiple times before finally settling on an official visit for the weekend of Dec. 11.

Even then, the visit came with low expectations. On a 10-point scale, Kelly said his perception of Notre Dame was probably a two. After the visit, he’s bumped the Irish up to an eight or nine.

“It was way better than I thought it would be that visit,” Kelly said. “It’s a beautiful school. I didn’t go when it was cold. I went when it was perfect. I know that would be crazy. It was just real cool. The coaches out there, they treated me well. I was there for a lot of practices. I got to see how it really was.”

At Notre Dame, Kelly could follow a unique linebacker legacy. Only two players have won the Butkus Award in high school and college: Smith and Manti Te’o. Kelly won the high school version, which was first awarded in 2008, in December.

Notre Dame made sure to remind Kelly of the legacy with a recruiting graphic, which he shared on Twitter. A photo of Kelly is flanked by Smith and Te’o suggesting that he would become the third to accomplish the Butkus Award feat if he came to Notre Dame.

“Hopefully, I’ll win it again no matter where — that’s going to be my goal no matter where I go,” Kelly said. “Them having done that, that would be cool to follow. I’m not going to base my decision off of that. I don’t feel the need that an award is going to decide for me. It’s just an award.”

That’s why Notre Dame’s recruiting pitch to Kelly has been about much more than football accolades. Instead the Irish are trying to show Kelly that he fits the ideals of the university and its academic prestige.

“They always tell me you’re a Notre Dame kind of guy where you have the maturity, you have the characteristics where you can balance football, you can balance school, you can balance everything outside of it,” Kelly said. “That kind of pitch is like if you’re a good person, you go to Notre Dame. You gotta be that type of person.”

Pulling against Notre Dame are schools in strong positions in Kelly’s recruitment.

At Oklahoma, Kelly sees a coaching staff that offered him his first scholarship. He’s in consistent contact with head coach Bob Stoops and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.

“I’m probably the closest with that coaching staff,” Kelly said. “Everybody knows they’ve kind of been up on my list always. The fan base all knows about me. That’s been the school that’s kind of been there the longest. Academic-wise, they have what I’m looking for. All three schools do. I made them my top schools because they’re all well-rounded and what I wanted.”

Oklahoma has successfully recruited several players from Fresno, Kelly’s hometown, in the last few years. Notre Dame has had much less luck with mishaps in 2012 with wide receiver Deontay Greenberry and cornerback Tee Shepard. The Irish have missed on multiple recruiting targets in the area since then.

At Oregon, Kelly could attend a school that isn’t too far away from his family.

“They’re kind of like my West Coast school,” Kelly said. “They are losing a lot of linebackers and they need a lot of help. You could kind of see that in the last game, but they had it too. You never know. They said they’re lacking a little leadership and they said if I came, I would have to play that role. That would be cool. The coaches there, they’ve been there forever. You know they probably aren’t going to go anywhere. They’ve had the winning seasons and everything. It’s pretty secure over there.”

Proximity matters to Kelly because of his close relationship with his mother, but none of the schools are a short trip from Fresno. He’s forced to reconcile with the fact that his mother will soon miss the first game of his football career, which began at the age of seven.

“It’s going to be weird,” Kelly said. “The away games for sure she’ll be watching on TV. We talk about that because I am for sure going away out of California … It’s life. It’s time to grow up too. It’s time to make my decision for me. She says that all the time. She wants me to choose for me. Not for her. Not for anybody. Wherever I feel the most comfortable, she just wants me to choose. Wherever I feel is the best fit, that’s where I gotta go.”

Except that his mother might be the easiest to impress on visits. Kelly said that after every visit to a different school, she tells him he needs to go there. With such ringing endorsements for each school, it’s not exactly helpful advice. But that’s probably the way she wants it, Kelly said.

In less than a month, Kelly will make a decision. It may come sooner than later, but he doesn’t plan on announcing it until signing day. The head coach of all three schools will get a chance to make an in-home visit with the Kellys for one final push.

Kelly insists that he doesn’t know where he’s going yet. The clock’s ticking. It’s time for him to settle into his stance and tackle the decision.

“It’s hard. I’m 17 years old. I have to make a decision for the rest of my life. But I think I’m mature enough to do it,” Kelly said. “Everybody else is mature enough to do it. They’ve done it already.”

Linebacker recruit Caleb Kelly is focused on three schools: Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Oregon. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army All-American Bowl)