Sophomore Jaylon Smith poised for stardom

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- Notre Dame’s next big thing can be described in myriad ways — refreshing, uber-talented, deep at times, simple at others, mature with a healthy dose of kid in him, a little quirky, driven, devoted to family.

And different, in a very good way.

Jaylon Smith’s nickname is Smooth. He has two dogs, and he’s proud to pull out his cell phone, with a cover that matches the color of ND’s helmets, and share pictures of them.

On this mid-May morning in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., the Notre Dame sophomore linebacker stopped at a gas station for a pre-workout sausage-and-egg breakfast burrito (he defends it by pointing out the protein it contained). His post-workout snack consisted of a green apple and a bottle of juice.

His favorite color is orange, and when pressed about why he didn't pick orange-clad Tennessee as his college destination, Smith explains it was too far from home, which leads him to proudly admit that he's a momma's boy.

The most intriguing chess piece in new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s schematic makeover, Smith loves odd numbers.

He has always worn No. 9 and, had there been an issue between Smith and Louis Nix had Nix not switched to No. 1 prior to last season, Smith offers — with a smile — “I have a way with words.”

Smith currently is reading the John Grisham novel “Bleachers.”

For the second time.

And you get the sense he could carry a long discussion about it.

His favorite movie is “Finding Nemo.”

His favorite author is Tim O’Brien, whose stories touch on the Vietnam War. He likes to bowl and, at the behest of his father, he’s trying to learn how to golf.

His toughest class at ND thus far has been Philosophy, “because the reading is so concrete and underneath.” During the spring semester, he earned all As and Bs, and saying that brought a smile to his face.

And then there’s this other nugget about how Smith is hiking through life’s journey.

During his senior year at Bishop Luers High School, Smith gave up basketball — a sport at which he was really, really good. Not a complete shock, considering that an injury could have been football-derailing. But what he did with his spare time, and more importantly why, offers a portal into how Smith is wired.

He took a job working the front counter at a local Burger King, so he could see what life is like for fast-food workers.

“I just wanted the experience to see how, from an inside perspective, what fast-food employees go through,” said Smith, perhaps the first five-star, Parade All-America, order-taker ever for BK (Burger King, not Brian Kelly).

“It was a nice experience. I worked in the front making shakes and slushees and things like that. Oreo Brownie sundaes. My whole objective was to put a smile on people's faces and brighten people's days.

“I think I accomplished that.”

And he’s looking to accomplish a whole lot more.

***

Smith has no concrete plans for his post-football life, He has yet to chose a major. But like he is doing on the football field, Smith wants to be a difference-maker.

“Given the God-given talents that I’ve been blessed with, I really see this game as sort of a platform to making a difference in the world,” Smith offers. “I feel like I need to do whatever it takes to give myself that shot. When it’s all said and done, I don’t want any regrets.

“I just want to find something to where I can impact people's lives. I'm not really sure what direction that's in, but that's why being at a school like Notre Dame, you gain a lot of knowledge, meet with a lot of new people and develop a lot of relationships.”

Relationships that feed the need to be more than a rising star on the football field.

“I think it's something from a satisfaction standpoint,” he said. “It's good. I feel like I'm good at communicating with people. And I like brightening people's days. I like putting smiles on people's faces.”

Smith's play last season put a lot of smiles on the faces of Notre Dame fans. When his freshman season was complete, Smith had displayed a promise that makes him, along with cornerback KeiVarae Russell and lineman Sheldon Day, the cornerstones of the retooled but rebuilding defense.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound prodigy started all 13 game in 2013s, becoming the first ND freshman linebacker to start a season opener since Kory Minor in 1995. His 67 tackles are the third-most by a freshman in school history.

His reward? Thank you very much, now do more.

Smith produced last year's numbers playing as the drop linebacker, a perimeter position in former coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense. Diaco is now the head coach at Connecticut, and Notre Dame brought in VanGorder from the NFL to run the Irish defense.

During the early part of spring practice, Smith was at his customary spot outside, though reconfigured somewhat in VanGorder’s more-attacking, more 4-3 aligned scheme. The wrinkle was an occasional bump inside when ND utilized its sub packages.

Late in spring, Smith was moved permanently to the WILL (weakside) linebacker, where he’ll be working from the middle of the field.

The goal: Notre Dame’s best linebacker will be in a better position to impact more plays. It’s a move designed more out of necessity than fit, particularly with a shortage of talented and/or experienced inside linebackers on the roster.

“That's a smart football player, and a guy that now is an asset to our defense in a manner that he never was before,” Kelly said. “He's not going to be out of much action where we've got him right now.”

Smith says one of the big challenges of the new position is learning to work against linemen every play in the muck that is the middle, while maintaining his speed. In his entire high school career, Smith played inside linebacker, exactly one game — and that was out of necessity because of an injury to a teammate.

“He’s got some work to do, but he shows signs of being an outstanding player there,” ND linebackers coach Bob Elliott said. “Jaylon Smith has great instincts, and he’s got a super attitude. He came in here as a five-star recruit, the best in the country, and you never would have known it. From day one, he was like a sponge.”

Smith, when reminded about the success he had last year, dismissed it. Strongly dismissed it.

“No, I’m serious,” he insisted. “I don’t care about it anymore. I’m focused on (future) and getting in shape to the point where I’m not coming off the field this year. I want to play 80 snaps per game, like a guy like Manti.”

***

They're different players, Manti Te'o and Smith. The former, the unanimous All-American and Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2012, is thicker and custom-built for inside linebacker. Smith is longer and leaner and the prototype for an outside guy.

Physical differences aside, Smith and Te'o share a lot of similarities, and it was Te'o whom Smith tapped into when he was making his college choice.

Before he committed to ND in the spring of 2012, Smith made an unofficial visit to South Bend, and it was then that the two forged a relationship that continues today, whether it be via phone conversation, text or Snapchat, the two communicate roughly once a week.

“Just someone that's been through it,” is how Smith describes having a resource such as Te'o, now heading into his second season with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers.

“He actually laid it out. He's been a great help. We talk about it all the time. We wish we'd had one year to play with each other. That would have been great ... yeah, really just seeing someone that did it, and actually being close to him and knowing him from a personal level.”

Te'o's advice to Smith?

“He was like, 'You can be the star at the next level. It's just about how you go about it. It's about the work you put in. At the end of the day, it's not about yourself. It's a team game. How can you make others better,'“ Smith related. “He's really just always been preaching about how to make other people better.”

When Te'o committed to Notre Dame on national signing day in February of 2009, his arrival brought with it stories of how he was a different type of player, the fact that he was an Eagle Scout accentuating that point.

There are signs that Smith might be that same kind of different (i.e., working at Burger King), and that he and Te'o are living on a parallel plane.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly the connection, but even a little time with each offers hints that there's a similarity and a bond, particularly in how they approach the game in a forward-thinking manner.

“It's part knowledge, high football IQ, being able to adapt to things, adjust, always worrying about the next play, whether the previous play was good or bad, it doesn't matter,” Smith said. “It's the next play that matters. It's all about being locked in, and that's something he's preached to me.”

***

It's barely 9 a.m., and already on this warm day that is giving hope that the long winter is ceding to a seasonal summer, Smith's green long-sleeved Notre Dame T-shirt is largely sweat-soaked.

Smith is working out with other players from the area, a fraternity of young men that grew up together, went their separate ways when college came, and then get together again during school breaks to make each other better.

There's a lot of talent at AWP Sports Performance, where the workouts take place, and by the way he performs his drills, it's evident early that the kid whose hair flops when he runs and who is wearing the ND shirt is the most talented. And judging by the way he works and leads, Smith is also the hungriest.

“The thing about Jaylon is, he's one of the top five-star athletes in the country, but he's one of the most humble, hungry athletes you'll know. He's hungry. He's always working,” said Lawrence Barnett, a former Luers star who played at Indiana and Alabama A&M.

“Just like in here today, I'm in here tired on my knees, and he's telling me, 'Get up, get up.' He's just a leader like that. I think at a young age he's learned how to be a leader, learned how to be humble, but at the same time be one of the most hungry athletes in the nation.”

Post-workout, Smith is unsure where the day will lead him. There's time to get cleaned up, grab lunch, but also time to stop in to visit his mother at the daycare where she works.

Sophia Woodson is a quiet woman, who measures her words carefully. But there's a constant smile when she talks about son Rod, Jaylon's older brother and a fifth-year senior running back at Ohio State, as well as Jaylon.

And she is well aware of what Jaylon’s ceiling, in football and life, looks like.

“I don't think he does, though,” she said. “He doesn't let himself know. He's been that way since he was young, very young. Always had determination, always had questions — 'What do I need to do to do this? What do I need to do to get here?'

“He's always been that way. Very determined to do his best at whatever he does.”

That includes making family a priority when he's home. Jaylon has two younger half-brothers and a younger half-sister that he makes a point of spending individual time with when he's in Fort Wayne.

Nearly a year after she sent him away to college, Sophia Woodson sees differences in Jaylon. And she also sees things that have not changed.

“In size, yes,” she said, referring to the extra weight and muscle her son has packed on since matriculating to South Bend. “But I can't say that he's changed much, because I've always seen him this way. He's always been who he is.”

***

Who will Smith be this year? The move inside will include challenges, challenges of which Elliott and the Irish coaches are well aware.

“Jaylon's world was pretty basic last year,” Elliott said. “His vision was maybe one or two guys on every play.”

Smith, though, is a guy who is comfortable forgetting the old and concentrating solely on the present. So while spring was heavy on new, it wasn't overwhelming.

“Not as challenging as I thought, to be honest,” Smith said. “It was a whole new scheme, new terminology, things like that. I went through the same process last fall, so it was just another thing. The key to it is just letting everything you did in the past go and really buying in.”

Who else will Smith be this year? There's enough there — the pedigree of what he did as a freshman, the personality, the drive and the desire — for him to emerge as a leader on a defense that doesn't have a clear-cut “guy.”

“Just because I'm a sophomore doesn't mean I'm not ready to be a leader,” he insisted. “I think I've continued to show that, and I'll continue to show that. So it's just about learning everything, so I can teach people.

“Last year was more so of ‘Just make sure I'm doing my job, make sure I'm executing.’ But this year it's not about that. It's obvious that I'm gonna make plays, but how can I help others? So that's really the main focus, and I'm committed to it.”

And with a leadership role comes added attention. You'll see Smith's picture on magazine covers. He's a look-you-in-the-eye guy with a dynamic personality and ready smile. The producers of pregame and halftime features for whichever network the Irish are playing on during a particular Saturday, will no doubt love to profile ND's next big thing.

The next big thing, though, plans to be the same old guy.

“Obviously, there's going to be a little more signing autographs and a little extra interviews and things like that,” Smith said. “I'm just on the path. The victory is the process. You have to honor it and acknowledge and appreciate it. So I'm not going to be mad and be like, 'Oh, I've got an interview.' It's a blessing that we all have.

“You're going to get the same Jaylon.”

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith sits in a children's playroom at the daycare where his mother works in Fort Wayne, Ind. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)