Notre Dame football: More growth than pain for Smith

<b> Eric Hansen</b>

SOUTH BEND - He oozes respect and humility in between the mostly measured responses.

There are enough glimpses, though, of who Jaylon Smith really is that it’s difficult not to fast-forward to who he may turn out to become rather than living in the moment, as he is forcing himself to do.

Even those who watched the 18-year-old Notre Dame outside linebacker from Fort Wayne, Ind., dominate on the high school level and the summer camp circuit, keep saying, “Just wait.”

Not that the first four college starts of the highest-rated Irish defensive recruit in the post-Lou Holtz Era have been reeking of growing pains.

As 22nd-ranked Notre Dame (3-1) braces for Saturday’s clash with No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0) at Notre Dame Stadium, Smith has filled his stat column with 11 tackles and one pass breakup.

But the drop linebacker position, which Smith plays, may be the one on the Irish defense that least lends itself to numbers in measuring its true value. In fact, sometimes playing at a high level means blending in.

When Smith’s setting the edge, he’s funneling plays back into the middle of the field. When he disrupts a wide receiver’s route, the opposing quarterback tends to look in another direction.

Those who have played the position before Smith acknowledge it may be the most difficult to learn in ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s scheme and the most unforgiving in terms of what that player is asked to do — shed the block of a 300-pound offensive tackle one play, run step for step with a slot receiver the next, rush the passer, defend tight ends.

And yet Smith doesn’t see it. Wednesday after practice, the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder with safety speed was asked about his biggest adjustment to college football.

“I wouldn’t say it’s on the field,” Smith assessed. “It’s time management off the field.”

Maybe it’s because Smith is the prototypical drop linebacker that Irish coach Brian Kelly has been waiting for. And he had to win a tug-of-war to get the nation’s consensus No. 3 player with Ohio State, where Smith’s brother, Rod, plays running back.

Kelly last summer called it the most important development on the recruiting trail in his four-plus cycles at ND to date.

On the field, early in the Kelly regime at ND, the coach had to mix and match at Smith’s position. Players who could stand up to the power part of the position’s requirements, had trouble in pass coverage.

So Kelly would often steal a safety to fit there when opponent’s style or down and distance dictated so.

Danny Spond, a one-time standout high school quarterback in Colorado, started his ND career at insider linebacker for the Irish. Eventually he became Kelly’s first real fit at the position last season and would have been in line to remain the starter this season.

But hemiplegic migraines, that staggered the start of his season in 2012, effectively ended his career in August.

What Smith lacks in knowledge of the college game, he makes up for in speed. Steve Wiltfong, a national writer for 247Sports, is among those who saw Smith hand-timed at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

And now Smith has the best of both worlds.

When Spond last month stepped away from playing football for good, he became Smith’s tutor. Spond attends practices regularly and even accompanies the team on road trips.

“He’s been wonderful,” Smith said. “He’s mastered the position I’m playing, and he’s just giving me great advice. I really just appreciate him being around and just learning from him.”

Smith also counts former Irish All-America middle linebacker Manti Te’o as a major influence, though he is careful not to invite comparisons.

“It’s a different tract, a different stage,” he said. “I’m my own person. He’s a great linebacker. He set his own legacy. I’m here to just contribute in any way I can.”

At Bishop Luers High School, Smith contributed as a four-year starter to four straight state titles and was named Indiana Mr. Football his senior season. Luers hasn’t won a game since he left, and is now mired in the first 0-5 start in school history.

At ND he keeps his goals simple.

“Obviously, there have been some mistakes, and everybody gets mad about those,” he said. “But it’s always about the next play. You have to forget about it and just move on.”

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) tackles Michigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge (16) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER