Captaincy would 'mean everything' to Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The tone of Jaylon Smith’s voice changes when the possibility is posed to him.

He doesn’t let on whether being a sophomore captain seems likely to him, but instead releases a sigh as if the idea has crossed his mind and the meaning would not be lost on him.

“It would mean everything,” said the linebacker who already has managed to surpass his five-star expectations in one year at Notre Dame. “The fact that I would have that trust from not only the players, but the staff as well — being a captain at the University of Notre Dame is like no other. I haven’t experienced that, but I’d be honored. I wouldn’t let anyone down.”

Head coach Brian Kelly said earlier this week that he would probably name captains on Monday heading into the Rice game. Earlier in camp, Kelly didn’t rule out the possibility of a sophomore being designated as a captain. With cornerback KeiVarae Russell’s status among those limited by the ongoing academic investigation, a nod to Smith likely would be well-received publicly.

Leadership won’t need to be designated to Smith. He’s already earned that respect from his teammates.

“As a captain you actually see it visually with the ‘C’ being on the jersey,” Smith said. “Regardless of being a captain or not, leadership is very important. It’s something that I’ll bring to the team as long as I’m here.”

It was on display Tuesday as the players made their way back from practice at Notre Dame Stadium to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. Walking side-by-side with fellow sophomore Max Redfield, Smith fed the starting safety, who appeared to have a poor practice, advice for most of the seven-minute stroll across campus.

“It’s a prime example of leadership,” Smith said of his talk with Redfield. “Guys have a bad day. You have to pull him to the side and actually tell him the errors that the coach will probably yell at him. You really don’t grasp it as much. It’s really just all about being a brother and actually being there for a guy. I think I helped him.”

He already twists lines that could seem cheesy on motivational posters into messages of meaning.

“The speed of the leader is the speed of the pack,” Smith recites as one of mantras of the defense.

If that means Notre Dame’s defense will follow the speed of Smith, they could do worse. Smith spent the offseason with a sharper focus in the weight room. He’s a sculpted 6-3, 235 pounds with the lowest body fat on the team and more power than he’s ever had.

“It all boils down to dedication in the offseason, not taking any days off in the weight room,” Smith said. “It’s something I’ve kind of taken in stride and really had a chance to develop myself physically. Not getting bigger to the point where I lost my speed. I still have that. It’s something that I’m very proud of.”

The strength will prove useful with Smith’s move to weakside (Will) linebacker and more run-ins with offensive linemen and ball-carriers. Irish running back Tarean Folston felt the pain in a recent practice when Smith leveled him while in pursuit of the quarterback.

When given the opportunity, Smith said he’s confident to make a hit that an opposing player will remember.

“Being a lot stronger, it boosts your confidence,” Smith said. “I think that’s OK to say. It’s really just all about attacking that player and doing whatever it takes to get them down.”

New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has coached Smith for less than a year, but the potential of his star linebacker has been clear from the start.

"He's an awfully good player,” VanGorder said. “He's still learning, and he approaches it every day with a great attitude. He wants to learn. He wants to improve. He wants to get better. And the physical traits are obvious. He's just a really good football player that carries a great attitude into it. It's going to be exciting just watching him get better week by week. He's a high-impact player.”

The growth has been visible to head coach Brian Kelly, who speaks as highly about Smith as he does any player on his current roster.

“He was an outside player, and now he's not just a leveraged player, he's playing inside‑out, which requires so much more as a football player,” Kelly said. “Discipline, instincts, pass coverage, so many things that he's grown into. He's a man, and he's exhibited that in that growth day in and day out at that position. I have not been around many players that have grown so quickly in the game the way he has in a very short period of time.”

Smith will learn shortly if a block "C" will adorn his uniform this season. In the coming weeks college football will learn if Smith’s ability can propel the Irish defense past some glaring shortcomings. Notre Dame’s win-loss record will likely depend on it.

“I still believe you need a great defense to be successful,” Smith said. “With me and guys like (defensive tackle) Sheldon (Day) leading, it’s really just something that we have to take upon ourselves and as a unit hopefully we can get the job done.”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith says he's ready for a leadership role. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)