Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith understands need to dominate

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Of course, Jaylon Smith was pressed Saturday about the Notre Dame quarterback cliffhanger that no one else seemed willing to spoil.

Even on a day when Smith’s role, by design, was more bystander than battler, it may have been the only instance that the Irish junior-to-be linebacker didn’t deliver when called upon.

“I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision,” he said, smiling widely, perhaps amused that anyone would figure he’d backpedal away from the company line on that touchy topic.

Or perhaps he was tickled that somehow the most salient storyline of ND football’s spring sailed into the quietest three months on the football calendar clearly obscured by the Everett Golson/Malik Zaire prattling, including their induced silence after Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.

The fact is, if the Irish defense isn’t markedly better in the fall than it was last November, it won’t matter who the No. 1 quarterback is.

After spending the first third to half of the 2014 season pressing the historic numbers the 2012 defense put up on its run to the BCS title game, coordinator Brian VanGorder’s first season at the defensive joystick yielded the worst national rankings across the board of the Brian Kelly Era.

The lowlights include a No. 72 rating out of 125 in rush defense, No. 84 in pass-efficiency defense, No. 71 in total defense, No. 82 in scoring defense, and the worst five-game stretch of points yielded in program history (221).

The antidote isn’t simply getting injured players back, sprinkling in freshmen and soon-to-be repatriated star cornerback KeiVarae Russell, and having a second spring to absorb the trigonometry-esque complexities of VanGorder’s Rex Ryan-inspired scheme, although all of that helps.

It starts and ends with Smith ascending into a dominant player.

“That’s the goal,” the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from Fort Wayne, Ind., acknowledged. “If it’s not there, then I’m going to keep working for it.”

Smith’s numbers both as a sophomore inside linebacker (team-leading 112 tackles, 9 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble) and those from the 2013 season playing outside (67 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 interception) are more than respectable.

But not transcendent. And not consistently game-changing.

More often than not in Smith’s 26 career games, you could make the argument that he was the best athlete on the field. But less often has that translated into him being a football player who takes over a game.

His role and the scheme that enveloped it in both seasons has a lot to do with that. Once Smith emerged midseason of 2013, teams tended to run away from his side of the field.

VanGorder and Irish head coach Kelly then moved him inside to weakside linebacker last season. The shift served two purposes.

It gave the Irish an elite athlete inside when there was a dearth of difference-makers there, either from a talent, health or experience standpoint. It also made it more difficult for teams to make Smith irrelevant on a given play and simply run away from him.

More difficult but not impossible. Later in the season, USC was for one, through play-call and formation, pulled Smith out of the box and onto the perimeter, leaving freshmen Greer Martini or Nyles Morgan on an island to make the vast majority of the plays.

Even when that didn’t happen, Smith was experiencing some similar growing pains that Martini and Morgan were thrashing through.

He had played exactly one game inside in his life prior to the move, and that was during Bishop Luers’ fourth straight Indiana state title run, in 2012.

An injury at middle linebacker during the playoffs put Luers in a precarious spot, but Smith volunteered for the job and watched tapes of then Irish star linebacker Manti Te’o to prep him for his new, temporary assignment.

The remedies in 2014 didn’t come quite so magically.

An unintended but benevolent byproduct of the move, though, was that it earned Smith currency with his teammates as it pertained to his burgeoning leadership role.

He was no longer a guy with breathtaking ability with only right turns ahead of him. Smith had to struggle and learn and work through frustration.

Moreover, here was a guy with an NFL future at outside linebacker, where the money and draft status is decidedly more lucrative than playing inside. And Smith didn’t blink when asked to do what was best for the team.

Another win-win that surfaced this spring is that Smith now has command of the angles, the strategies, the nuances of playing inside, which in turn gives Kelly and VanGorder options.

They can now play him inside or outside or both within games, within series, even within the moments before a snap.

A large part of that equation is the remarkable comeback of 2013 starting middle linebacker Jarrett Grace, the expected return from injury of 2014 starter Joe Schmidt and the rise of November fill-in starter Morgan and early-enrolled freshman weakside linebacker Te’von Coney.

Without that chain of events, Smith’s flexibility would stay conceptual rather than practical.

“You’ll have to game-plan against him,” Kelly beamed. “Now he’s going to be central to everything that happens during the game.”

Added Smith, “It doesn’t allow the offense to get comfortable from the stance of where I’m at. That’s just a new asset.”

And so now too is his louder, most influential voice in the defensive huddle, in the locker room, in the player-led workouts that are so essential in the summer in shaping what the falls look like.

And his message packs a wallop if he can get the execution of it to be as strong as the buy-in appears to be.

“We need physical players here,” Smith said. “We kind of got a bad rap of being soft, intelligent, smart guys at Notre Dame. Along with that, we have to have that and a physical mentality.

“We have the capacity. It’s just about turning that switch. It’s something that we’re emphasizing, and as a leader, I’m on ‘em every day.”

Around him are players who had transformative springs — safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate, junior defensive end Isaac Rochell, sophomore cornerback Nick Watkins and freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery among the most dramatic.

A lot of that got camouflaged in the Blue-Gold Game, which is sort of the annual spring finale’s nature and mission. What you don’t see is sometimes more relevant to the fall than what you did.

Case in point, Smith was credited with two tackles in very limited playing time — one more than walk-on cornerback Jesse Bongiovi and the same amount that quarterback Golson was incorrectly credited with (should have been added to fellow No. 5, Morgan’s total).

But in the aftermath, there was no mistaking where Smith intends to take the defense and no hesitation from Kelly on whether it can happen.

If 2015 is going to have a 2012 vibe to it, it’s going to start with a defensive renaissance. And players like Smith, if he can rise to the occasion, bend tepid expectations into title runs. They leave legacies.

“It’s a blessing,” Smith said of his expanded role and expectations around it. “Any way that I can help lead a team to victory is something I’m willing to do. I don’t care where I play. I’m here for the guys. Notre Dame — that’s what I’m about.

“Wherever they want me to line up, I’m ready.”

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Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith (9) during practice on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN