Notre Dame football: Despite big debut, Smith wants more
SOUTH BEND -- As the season’s highlights played at the annual team banquet, Jaylon Smith wasn’t ready to look at his freshman season in review. After all, the Irish still have one game remaining against Rutgers in Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl.
But mention Danny Spond’s name, and Smith admits it will be hard to forget being able to wear the former linebacker’s number (13) on Senior Day against BYU.
“That was probably the best moment of my freshman year,” Smith said. “Being able to go out there and play for someone else — not only mentally but physically with having that number. I think I did a good job. I could have done better for him. It was a great experience.”
Just a year ago, Smith attended the Notre Dame football banquet as a recruit, watching linebacker Manti Te’o join his team via video from New York a day before the Heisman Trophy presentation. Smith was already seen as the next star linebacker at Notre Dame before stepping on the field. Twelve games later, he’s lived up to the hype.
Smith secured the starting drop linebacker position after Spond, a starter returning for his senior season, was forced to retire with chronic health issues. He hadn’t imagined how he’d find his way onto the field, but Smith always remained confident he would find a starting role as a freshman.
“I believe that's every elite high school player's dream to come right in and compete for the starting job,” Smith said. “Danny went down and the opportunity was there. It was really a great opportunity.”
Smith made the most of his playing time with his athleticism being maximized in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s scheme. Only two players — senior linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox — tallied more tackles than Smith’s 61. Only Stephon Tuitt (7.5) made more tackles for a loss than the outside linebacker (6.5). Smith added an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery to the first line of his college resume.
Few were as vocal in the immediate wake of Diaco’s departure for the head coaching job at Connecticut as Smith was on Twitter. A simple tweet of “No!” was elongated with 115 ‘O’s and a frowning emoticon. In the days following the news, Smith grew to accept Diaco’s decision as one that was in the best interest of him and his family. Smith expressed no hard feelings.
“I'm happy I got the opportunity to be coached by him,” Smith said. “He taught me so much and I love him.”
Instead of reflecting, Smith maintains he continues to look ahead. Not until Notre Dame finishes its business against Rutgers will he take a deep breath and take his foot off the gas pedal.
“I will after the season,” Smith said. “We have one more game. After the season is complete, I'll go home and spend some time with my family and then be able to reflect on the positives and the negatives.”
He won’t have to look far to find the positives. He was named the team’s Newcomer of the Year at the awards banquet. He also received national recognition from 247Sports as a member of its 2013 True Freshman All-American Team.
Smith’s hopes as a five-star recruit have started to become a reality, but he still sees bigger things on the way.
“I just wanted an opportunity,” Smith said. “I think any player envisions success. It's very humbling, but I believe I can do better. We'll see.”