Smith a key to Notre Dame defense

COMMENTARY

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Coincidence? Absolutely not.

There’s a reason extra duties within the framework of the Notre Dame football team’s defense have been heaped on Jaylon Smith this spring.

Spend just a couple minutes with the rising sophomore and it becomes obvious.

This guy’s sharp.

Don’t underestimate what the 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker did on the field last season as a rookie. He collected 67 tackles, No. 3 on the Irish, along with 6½ tackles for loss and an interception while playing the outside.

That effort, though, has just scratched the surface. Smith has big-time potential. The key is for new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to put him in the proper position.

Make that position(s).

Irish head coach Brian Kelly has issued the challenge. Smith will be spending these 15 spring practices learning what the game looks like from several different vantage points.

“We’re overloading (Smith) with a number of different looks.” Kelly said. “We don’t want offenses to know where he is. We’re going to play him in a number of different positions. He could be inside, outside. We’re moving him all over the place.”

Fifth-year senior safety Austin Collinsworth can sympathize with what Smith is experiencing. In the spring between his freshman and sophomore season, he was put on the other side of the ball, moving from receiver to safety.

“It’s tough,” Collinsworth said. “There’s a lot of learning. There’s a lot of time to be spent in film rooms. If you commit the time to it, you can do it.

“It’s kind of like being in final exams for three weeks straight.”

“It’s stressful, but the less you complain the easier it gets,” said Smith, whose glass is always half-full. “That’s something I’ve lived by. We’ve got to do it.

“It’s a game we’ve been playing since we were 8 years-old. I’m here to cherish every moment.”

He even cherishes the attention he gets from VanGorder. During a recent practice, the new leader of the Irish defense, whose decibels are well beyond those of his predecessor Bob Diaco, was constantly shouting “J (this) ...,” “J (that) ...,” “J ...”

On one snap with Smith at inside linebacker, his instincts told him to attack the ball carrier by cutting to his left. The runner went untouched to his right. Even from far away, it was obvious Smith was frustrated.

“You have to make mistakes, but you can’t be afraid to make them,” Smith said. “You’re really just worrying about the next play. You make a mistake, acknowledge it, but then move on.

“There’s going to be a time when that decreases.

“From a football standpoint, being challenged like that, it’s something I wanted. There are lessons with that opportunity.

“I’m blessed with that opportunity. It isn’t going to do anything but help me in the long run. I’m just taking everything in stride. I’m looking forward to improving my football IQ.

“I’m fortunate enough to grasp things (quickly). I’m open to everything.”

Part of Smith’s legend and lore from Fort Wayne Luers High School was, in a crucial game, his filling in at inside linebacker because of an injury. He studied film of former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o and learned it well enough to get his team a victory.

“(The game looks) very different (from the middle of the defense),” Smith said. “I’ve never played from the middle; I’ve never seen the middle of the field my entire life (except for that one game). I’ve always played it from the outside looking in.

“I think it’s going to be a nice transition, with older guys there to help me, and to encourage me to never get down and concentrate on the next play.”

There’s a philosophical side to Smith. The depth of his maturity and his ability as a captivating personality are well beyond his years. If there’s one player with an opportunity to be a galvanizing force that will rival the impact Te’o had, it’s Smith.

“As a freshman, you’re just called to do your job; execute what you have to do,” he said. “Now that I can handle my own, it’s about bringing others together and making others better. As a teammate, I think I’ll be able to handle that.

“I don’t like to put an age on things. It’s really just about ability and holding yourself accountable.

“I’m fun to be around. I’m very open to things. I’m not selfish. I’m the type of player you need at Notre Dame.”

Nobody will argue with that.

Al Lesar: 574-235-6318

Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith celebrates a stop during a game against BYU last season. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)