Notre Dame football: Jaylon Smith living up to the hype

BOB WIENEKE
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

During the early stages of last Saturday’s third quarter, USC quarterback Cody Kessler dropped back to pass. The instant Notre Dame outside linebacker Jaylon Smith saw that Kessler was throwing, he dropped into coverage and looked for any Trojan receivers running a deep crossing route in his zone.

As it turned out, there was an SC receiver gliding through Smith’s area. It wasn’t just any SC receiver. It was All-American-in-waiting Nelson Agholor.

“And there he was,” Smith recalled, before also recalling that he didn’t immediately know who he was covering. “Not until I saw how fast he was, and I was like, ‘Whoa.’”

Agholor, and Kessler for that matter, might have been thinking the same thing.

Smith, Notre Dame’s 6-foot-2, 230-pound evolving force, intercepted the pass, truncating that drive and setting the tone for a defensive renaissance of sorts in ND’s eventual 14-10 victory.

And in the process, Smith provided the latest form of evidence that he was worth the recruiting hype and that he will likely be the face of the Irish defense for the next three (possibly two?) years.

“He could be phenomenal,” senior cornerback Bennett Jackson said. “He plays with great energy, great passion for the game. There’s obviously going to be kinks here and there, but everybody has their kinks.

“But he’s way ahead of what a normal freshman would be. He’s got great respect for his teammates, high-quality man. He just plays the game because he loves it, so I think the sky’s the limit for him if he just keeps pushing himself, as I know he will.”

Tests have come in various forms. Against Michigan State, he was the Irish defender who shoved Spartan quarterback Andrew Maxwell out of bounds on MSU’s last-gasp play. Against Arizona State, it was a case of Smith, timed at 4.59 seconds in the 40-yard dash as a high-schooler, being all over the field. Against USC, it was a pick while covering one of the nation’s best.

This week, and next, the test arrives in defending what essentially is the option, which comes courtesy of first Air Force and then Navy.

There will be fullback dives into the middle of the line. There will be planned quarterback keepers. And there will be option reads on which Smith will often be the edge defender staring at the Air Force quarterback (whoever it may be), one who will be deciding whether to run or pitch. Smith’s job will be to “feather,” or force the issue.

“You kind of mess with (the quarterback),” Jackson said. “You don’t necessarily pick one, but you kind of slow them down so he doesn’t know which one to pick, and then when he makes a decision, you react to it.”

“I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great challenge,” Smith said. “The next two weeks will be the hardest two weeks of my life.”

Through the first seven weeks of his college football life, Smith has adapted well. He’s fifth on the team with 31 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, and also has two pass breakups, a forced fumble and the aforementioned interception.

“I know I’m getting better every week,” Smith said after hesitating to grade himself. “There’s obviously tons of things that I still need to do in order to keep improving as a player, but I think I’m doing fairly well. Whenever I make a mistake, it’s really all about the next play.”

“He’s definitely cleaning up his game,” Jackson said.

Smith’s athleticism is what helped him gain a starting spot, but his maturity is what separates him from equally-skilled players. Smith, for instance, took on a part-time job at a Burger King in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., his senior year in order to see what the working world was like.

“Really, just trying to get the full experience of the world,” he said.

He comes across as plenty experienced, not only on the field but also during interviews. Twice this season, before he was allowed to do his first interview, Smith meandered through the area where players talk with reporters.

Jealousy? Why not him? Nope.

“Really no feeling,” Smith said. “Just it wasn’t my time.”

It is now.

BWieneke@SBTinfo.com

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Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) celebrates a stop on fourth down that sealed a 17-13 win for the Irish against Michigan State on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER via FTP