Can Jaylon Smith really take the lead for Notre Dame football?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Aaron Taylor looks at Notre Dame sophomore Jaylon Smith and sees a prodigy evolving into a defensive linchpin for the Irish football team, even with a position shuffle.

When Smith looks in the mirror, he sees something more — a conscience, a voice, a standard, a leader.

“It’s really just who I am,” Smith said of a role he volunteered for, embraced and now lives. “It’s not something I kind of force or anything.”

ND head coach Brian Kelly sees it, too. He sees it when Smith reaches back into ND’s recent past and connects with former unanimous All-American Manti Te’o. He sees it when the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Fort Wayne, Ind., product schmoozes with recruits on their campus visits.

He sees it when Smith takes aside the next Irish linebacker phenom, freshman Nyles Morgan, and helps fill in the blanks and mitigates the angst and the doubts.

“He’s a leader on our football team right now,” Kelly said earlier this week when asked if Smith could possibly be named a captain at such an early stage of his career. “Whether he gets a ‘C’ on the jersey, we’ll see how that plays out, but I wouldn’t say that’s out of the realm of possibility.”

Taylor, a captain himself roughly two decades ago as well as the 1993 Lombardi Award winner and an offensive lineman who gained unanimous All-America honors, can peel back the leadership cliché and define its substance.

“There’s no question that when I got to Notre Dame, I was a good football player,” said Taylor, currently a college football analyst for CBS Sports. “I was a captain of my high school team, but I had no idea what leadership looked like at this level.

“But Mike Heldt taught me. Mirko Jurkovic taught me. Gene McGuire taught me. Justin Hall taught me. All those guys who came before me all taught me what it took to be successful at that level, and it wasn’t rah-rah stuff.

“It was how hard you work in the offseason. It’s what to do when you get beat. It was how to respond after a big victory. It was how much to celebrate and how late into the week, if you will, to manage your beverage intake throughout the week. All those sorts of things came from the older guys and, without question, without that team struggles.”

It certainly did in 2013. Last year’s iteration may have had better pieces overall than the 2012 defense that produced historic numbers and laid the groundwork for ND’s highest postseason ranking (4 AP, 3 coaches poll) since Taylor’s group finished No. 2 his senior season (1993). But the pieces often lacked harmony, cohesiveness, and direction — and not just because of some intermittent injuries.

“I feel this team needs leaders,” said Smith, whose 13 starts as a freshman last season are more than the number of career starts of the other six projected Irish defensive front-seven starters combined.

That some or most of that leadership will come outside the senior class isn’t all together surprising. Eleven of the 22 players in Kelly’s first recruiting class (2010) transferred, had their careers ended by injuries or left a year of eligibility on the table to go pro. Already six players in the 2011 class that followed have checked the same boxes.

“It’s a big burden, a big responsibility,” Taylor said of the captain’s role. “I never had an underclassman who was a captain (as a teammate). We just had too much leadership in the upper ranks.

“At the end of the day, a guy’s level of play on the field dictates everything, and that’s good or bad. I think when it’s bad is when you get a knucklehead who’s really good who’s made captain and who’s in a leadership position. You have the younger players wanting to emulate that.

“I think the fact that they’re considering doing it with somebody so young not only means that he’s productive on the field, but it’s about what he’s doing in the offseason.

“If you just put the tape on and watch No. 9 play last year, you saw that he was a great player, but everything I’m hearing sounds like he’s a Notre Dame kid that a lot of guys look up to and would warrant being made captain as a sophomore and would understand and respect that responsibility.”

The responsibility isn’t always glamorous. In 1993, the player leadership on that Irish team thought then-head coach Lou Holtz was making a mistake by considering starting true freshman Ron Powlus at quarterback over senior Kevin McDougal, the latter of whom had sort of fermented behind departed starter Rick Mirer his first three seasons.

Powlus came to Notre Dame from Berwick, Pa., as the nation’s No. 1 recruit regardless of position.

“Literally, there was going to be a mutiny,” Taylor said. “And we were days, if not hours, away as captains from going into Holtz’s office and trying to lay down what we thought was the gauntlet or drawing the line in the sand, ’cause the feeling was there was no way we were going to let our senior season ride on the shoulders of Ron Powlus, as young as he was.

“That was nothing against Ron. It’s just Kevin was our guy, and we felt like he gave us the best chance to win. But that was really starting to divide the locker room.”

Powlus suffered a broken collarbone in one of the final scrimmages before the regular season, and McDougal moved into the starting slot.

“It was pretty fortuitous that Ron got hurt when he did — and Ron went on to have a tremendous career,” Taylor said. “But at that time, it was about to be on, man. We were about ready to tar and feather Holtz. And Kevin single-handedly put us on his back in that Michigan game and won us that game and probably — arguably — many others that year and had an outstanding year.”

Smith’s hopes for an outstanding 2014 begin at weakside (Will) linebacker, a position he said he never played in his life until spring. In fact, Smith said the only time he played either of the inside linebacker positions is during his high school team’s run to a fourth consecutive state title in Smith’s senior year at Bishop Luers.

An injury to the team’s middle linebacker prompted Smith to move inside, to middle linebacker, and his tutorial for learning the position was watching Te’o’s 2012 game film.

“I’ll be in a position this year where I’ll be in on every play,” Smith said with a smile about his new role, which also comes in a new scheme and with a new defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder.

“So it’s really a strategy that coach Kelly and coach VanGorder came up with to where I could be a more vocal and physical impact on each play. We had the whole spring to get the grasp of that (new position), so that’s really not a big issue or an excuse this year.”

Smith played strictly on the perimeter, as a drop linebacker, in former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 based scheme. Taylor said there is more carry-over in responsibilities for Smith than one might think, so it won’t be like starting over.

“I saw him do extremely athletic things in space with the way they used him last year,” Taylor said, “and I also saw him be physical and make plays around the line of scrimmage and hold the edge and do all the things you need to do to be an aggressive player. My guess is he’s going to be just fine.”

He’s coupled at the heart of the made-over Irish defense with supposedly undersized (6-1, 235) senior and former walk-on Joe Schmidt, whose projected start in the Aug. 30 season opener against Rice will be the first of his career.

Smith was the consensus No. 3 player regardless of position coming out of high school nationally and a five-star prospect. ranked Schmidt as a zero-star prospect coming out of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, with his only two reported FBS scholarship offers being Cincinnati and Air Force.

“Mike Singletary (6-230), Zach Thomas 5-11, 242 — there’s been a ton of guys over the years that have had a lot of success who were undersized at middle linebacker,” Taylor said of the doubts circling Schmidt. “Certainly they’ve been the exception and not the rule.

“But you’ve got be smart, you’ve got to be a leader, you’ve got to get guys lined up in front of you. You’ve got to be able to communicate. I think early it’s going to be important to have somebody in there that knows what’s going on. We’ll find out soon enough if Brian Kelly has found the heart of his defense.”

Smith would like to think Kelly has already found its soul.

Squibs on Thursday released its list of 50 breakout players in college football for the 2014 season. Two Irish players landed on the list — junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell at 17 and sophomore running back Greg Bryant at No. 22.

It’s 18 months until National Signing Day 2016, but already one of the top quarterbacks in that recruiting class has narrowed his college choices to four, and Notre Dame made the cut.

Malik Henry also has UCLA, Ohio State and Florida State in his final four, released Thursday on his Twitter account. ranks Henry the No. 2 dropback QB in the 2016 class and No. 9 overall regardless of position. 247Sports also rates him the No. 2 dropback QB, but the No. 4 prospect overall.

The 6-2, 174-pound junior comes from the same home town — Westlake Village, Calif. — as former Irish standout QB Jimmy Clausen, though Henry attends Westlake High and Clausen is an alum of Oaks Christian. | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

In Notre Dame's search for leadership, it's hard to avoid sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)