Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith has plenty on his plate

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jaylon Smith sort of slept through the mass outrage of Notre Dame landing in the lower-than-expected 10 spot in the new College Football Playoff rankings.

“What time was it on?” the Notre Dame sophomore linebacker prodigy asked innocently of the 30-minute ESPN show on Tuesday evening that kicked off everything from SEC conspiracy theories to blindly blaming committee member Condoleezza Rice.

Apprised of the 7:30 start time, Smith offered that it wouldn’t have overtaken his plans to get post-practice treatment or start a long night of studying.

“My phone was dead all last night, so I didn’t hear anything,” he said of the news of the rankings. “I actually just found out (Wednesday) morning. At the end of the day, as long as we’re getting better … we’ll be successful.”

Smith’s sense of urgency about getting better is light years ahead of his concern with the nine teams ahead of ND in the first-ever set of committee rankings. And so is his work ethic that pushes him through a learning curve much steeper than most of the outside world realizes, at a still relatively new position.

It gets almost vertical this week with the triple-option landing on Smith’s wide plate as the AP sixth-ranked Irish (6-1) take on Navy (4-4) at Landover, Md., Saturday at FedExField.

For just the second time in 88 meetings, college football’s most continuous intersectional rivalry will take place under the lights (8 p.m.; CBS-TV).

For just the third time since the end of his eighth-grade football season, the recently anointed Butkus Award semifinalist, emblematic of the nation’s best linebacker, has to deal with option in large doses, not just bits and pieces of read option he’s seen from Rice, North Carolina, etc.

“It’s all about teamwork,” said the 6-foot-3, 235-pound inside linebacker, who played outside against Navy and Air Force last season as well as his freshman year at Fort Wayne Bishop Luers High when he faced option. “We’re grasping it well, coming in early, getting extra film in, things like that.”

The Irish are also apparently moving some pieces around, including end Isaac Rochell inside and defensive tackle Sheldon Day to the edge. Smith’s role could mutate during the game as first-year Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder tries to give multiple looks for Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds to dissect.

The 5-11, 195-pound junior helped Navy engineer 419 yards in total offense in last season’s 38-34 near upset of the Irish in South Bend and 28 first downs, the most ever by a Navy team against the Irish.

“He’s very dynamic,” Smith said of Reynolds. “He understands the system. He understands the scheme.”

He also has 52 career rushing TDs, eight away from breaking the NCAA record for rushing TDs by a quarterback jointly held by Nebraska’s Eric Crouch and Nevada’s Collin Kaepernick.

Reynolds is the most important man on the field for Navy, and arguably Smith is for the Irish on Saturday, because of his ability to cover so much ground, because of his focus, because one of these days all the tumblers are going to fall in place and instinct will finally trump thinking and calculating.

“It’ll happen someday,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet. But I’m just blessed to be on a defense like we have here. Getting better each and every day is something I strive for, and everything’s going to be good.”

There’s certainly more progress than backsliding, though a decent portion of Smith’s 53 tackles and team-leading 6½ tackles for loss have been accidental and/or the product of his closing speed covering a mistake.

That was the case last year as well at times, but because he was a freshman, not because of the unfamiliarity of a new scheme and new position.

“If it looked effortless, it was because of the preparation,” he said. “I had a guy like (player-turned-student coach) Danny Spond in my behind every single day making sure everything was fine and crisp.”

He was crisper against Air Force’s option last season (eight tackles) than Navy’s (three). But he did make the game-saving tackle on a fourth-and-4 play with about a minute left and with the Mids driving at the Irish 31-yard line.

Safety Eilar Hardy made initial penetration on an end-around, and Smith finished off receiver Shawn Lynch for no gain.

“I remember Eilar Hardy saving my butt,” Smith acknowledged.

Perhaps the most compelling evolution in Smith’s game is that he sees how important it is for the pieces to fit together, how it’s not just all about him, how he can learn from a former walk-on in middle linebacker Joe Schmidt (whom nose guard Jarron Jones compared to cartoon genius Jimmy Neutron on Wednesday night) and be better for it.

“It’s about building our culture,” said Smith, who lauded VanGorder. “We definitely feel his vibe with us, and it translates to us on the field. We’re all in this together. The scheme requires relentless effort. It starts in practice, the way we practice.”

It’s a relentlessness that grew after ND’s own near miss, a 31-27 loss at Florida State on Oct. 18.

“The plane ride for me was really dark, not a lot of sound or music going on,” he said. “Really just buying into and acknowledging the fact that you get what you earn. We lost and we accept it, and now it’s on to Navy.

“Each and every week our goal is to get better. I felt like we did that. Obviously, we didn’t find a way to make one more play, but it’s something that we'll continue to encourage us. It’s all about the next day, the next play.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Notre Dame sophomore Jaylon Smith was named a First Team Preseason All-American by Phil Steele. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)