LB Smith makes a move inside for Notre Dame

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The first word out of Jaylon Smith’s mouth was “blessed” as the Notre Dame sophomore-to-be summarized his feelings Saturday about some position experimentation this spring that evolved into a full-blown transplant.

On a day when FieldTurf, lustrous quarterback stats and even a puff of sultry weather produced wow factors in a 63-59 mirage-laden victory for the offense (Blue team) in the 85th annual Blue-Gold Game, perhaps the most significant and enduring development — however obscured — involved Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly moving his most dangerous chess piece closer to the middle of the field.

“When I committed here, I committed to doing anything that would help the team win, and I’ll stick to that,” said the ripped 6-foot-3, now 235-pound Smith, a prototypical outside linebacker and the nation’s No. 3 prospect at any position coming out of high school a year ago, who now moves full time to the inside, weakside linebacker position.

“I’m a team-first player. I’m not worried about myself. I just really want to do whatever it takes to help our team win.”

A Notre Dame Stadium crowd of 27,986, that included a sizable contingent of both former and future Irish, looked on at what turned out to be the last game played on natural grass in the 84-year-old facility.

Commencement next month will be the final actual event staged on what’s left of the badly worn sod before installation of synthetic FieldTurf commences. The completion date is set for Aug. 15, 15 days before the Irish open the 2014 season against Rice.

The school made the announcement while the Blue-Gold Game was already in progress. By that time quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire were well on their way to coaxing the offense to a 57-15 halftime lead — especially Zaire.

Golson, a senior-to-be and the starter on the 2012 squad that played for the national title against Alabama, returned from a season in academic/disciplinary exile to put up a respectable 13-of-23 for 160 yards. His only touchdown came on the ground, a five-yarder, which is more impressive when you consider the defense merely touching the quarterbacks rendered them down.

Neither quarterback, nor walk-on third-stringer Charlie Fiessinger, threw an interception in the first turnover-free spring game of Kelly’s five at Notre Dame. The QBs also played a role in the game producing the fewest penalty yards (15) in a Kelly-coached spring game.

The scoring was modified to include awarding points for such things big-chunk pass plays and consecutive first downs for the offense, and three-and-outs on defense. In actuality, 31 points were scored by the offense in traditional fashion — 14 more than last spring — including a 50-yard field goal from senior-to-be Kyle Brindza.

Zaire’s own personal stats needed no modification or enhancement. The sophomore-to-be who redshirted in 2013 as a freshman played well enough Saturday to extend a mounting fan-driven quarterback debate into the summer, but more pointedly raised the question why wasn’t the Kettering, Ohio, product the No. 2 quarterback last season instead of fermenting.

The lefty completed 18-of-27 for 292 yards and touchdowns to C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle. But his most impressive throw of the day might have been an incompletion to early-enrolled freshman wide receiver Justin Brent. The catchable ball, that ticked off the 6-2 Brent’s fingertips, traveled 65 yards in the air — into the wind.

“I do that all the time,” Zaire said, laughing at his own bravado. “The spring was definitely a learning experience, ’cause a lot of stuff was new to us. Because it was new to us, it was harder to get to it.

“When we figured everything out and got it down today — this is your party. That’s the same way it should be during the season. Practice should be harder than the games. It came easy to us today.”

Kelly is in no hurry to put labels of 1 and 2 on Golson and Zaire, even though their reps during the first 14 spring practices reflect that order. Zaire’s push — with his words, with his relentless confidence and the commitment to do the work necessary to back all that up — has made both QBs better.

As long as it doesn’t degenerate into something that divides the locker room, Kelly is content to let that dynamic simmer.

“I think we are going to be able to sort this thing out,” Kelly said. “And by what we saw today I think we have got two really good quarterbacks that are learning,”

The two pleasant surprises Saturday in his eyes, other than the mercury breaching 70 degrees for the first time since Oct. 12, were the QBs’ surrounding cast.

Namely, the three-man running back rotation, with newcomer Greg Bryant rushing for a game-high 95 yards on 12 carries, and a deep receiving corps still without leading returning receiver DaVaris Daniels, an academic casualty who is expected back at school in June and who took in Saturday’s exhibition as a spectator.

”It's OK if you're feeling excited about this offense next season!,” Daniels tweeted from his Twitter account.

Junior Chris Brown created the most excitement among the receivers with five catches for 105 yards, including a game-long 47-yarder from Zaire.

Overreached conclusions are natural coming out of a spring game, especially with such a contrived format and such sanitized schemes and plays. It brings to mind the Junior Jabbie Rule, named after the 2007 offensive MVP of the Blue-Gold Game who was never really heard from before or since that performance.

Kelly further muddled the big picture Saturday by mixing and matching personnel on both sides of the ball, but especially on defense.

Walk-on Austin Larkin, for instance, started at middle linebacker. The son of former Irish outside linebacker Mike Larkin and nephew of Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin had six tackles, one short of the team lead.

Spring standouts Smith, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and safety Max Redfield played little more than cameo roles, by design. Kelly saw enough of them and the wider-angle view in the earlier practices to feel good about where new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s makeover is headed.

“We feel like we've identified some of our really legitimate playmakers,” Kelly said. “And then we've identified some individuals that will really play roles for us — maybe not 60 plays — but that will have a significant role for us.

“So I think what Brian has done is he has found players that maybe have not played a lot of football for us, that can have roles in assisting and helping our defense. And I think that that's what his experience brings. Here is somebody with a lot of experience that can take an individual and say, ‘All right, here is where he can help us.’”

The move of Smith inside may be the biggest help of all.

Even with very limited snaps, Smith had six tackles. The most impressive of which came on a running play in which sophomore-to-be Tarean Folston broke outside and appeared headed for a long scoring run.

Smith accelerated and smothered Folston near the line of scrimmage as he was trying to make his cut upfield.

“Need was another huge factor in that (we) needed to move him in a position where he could impact that defense,” Kelly said of Smith’s new role, “and we felt that that was more of an impactful position.

“You can put him in (at outside linebacker) and really at times put three receivers out there and get him on the perimeter; and you could take him out of a lot of action. He's not going to be out of much action where we've got him at right now.”

Not that it is necessarily an easy transition. Smith admits he had played only one game in his life at inside linebacker prior to this spring, and that came during Fort Wayne Luers’ march to a fourth straight Indiana state title in football in the fall of 2012.

Smith moved inside to compensate for an injured teammate, and watched film of then-Heisman Trophy contender Manti Te’o — ND’s former All-America middle linebacker — to prepare him for that game.

“To be given a lot of things thrown at me, it’s a great challenge,” Smith said. “I’m ready and willing to overcome those challenges.”

Smith admitted, though, it took a few practices to not only buy into VanGorder tinkering with his position but his entire vision of the defense.

“(Eventually) you can’t just act like you know it all,” he said. “You have to be willing to accept the criticism and apply it to the game. Don’t worry about how he says it, but concentrate on what he’s actually saying. Once you develop that into your game, the sky’s the limit.”

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith has moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker as the Irish close spring practice. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)