Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith's evolution has created a monster

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Jaylon Smith’s smile grew broader and more brazen as the line of questioning about the intricacies of the Notre Dame defense earlier this week incrementally encroached on his comfort zone.

Finally the Irish junior linebacker started laughing uncontrollably when pressed to name the set in which he morphs into a defensive end.

“I don’t want to give anything away,” he said, chortling away. “If I told you, you would laugh though, at what it’s called.”

A year ago, Smith might not have known the answer to give, even if he wanted to. Or exactly what was the proper angle to take on a given play from any set, even though his safety-esque speed might help him eventually turn a faux pas into a highlight reel.

He had been plopped into a more central station in ND’s then-freshly unwrapped, brain teaser of a defensive scheme, way out of his familiar and mastered perimeter role and into a place some felt would limit both his present and future.

The move from his prototyped outside linebacker position reeked of desperation. Of the three other healthy inside linebacker options beyond Smith for the 2014 season were two true freshmen, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, and a former walk-on with zero career starts and 21 career tackles, in Joe Schmidt.

But ND head coach Brian Kelly and his new defensive curator, Brian VanGorder, insist the recalibration of Smith’s career arc would have happened anyway.

“It really was about getting him in the center of action,” Kelly said, “and that Will (weakside) linebacker position keeps him around the action. We can even dictate terms.”

Not right away, though. And not without some backward steps. Even when Smith finally started gaining consistent traction in the final month of the 2014 regular season, he couldn’t rectify the deterioration of the defense around him that saw ND’s unit sink statistically to 71st among 125 FBS teams.

But the Fort Wayne, Ind., prospect who came to Notre Dame ranked only behind Ole Miss defensive line recruit Robert Nkemdiche and Florida cornerback signee Vernon Hargreaves III nationally in the 2013 class never had to be talked into the move and never questioned whether it would ever get unstuck from its protracted incubation phase.

Instead, he kept honing his leadership traits, kept chatting up mentor Manti Te’o, and carefully sculpted his 6-foot-3, 230-ish frame into a more durable 243 pounds without losing any speed or fluidity.

Somewhere during this past offseason, his past and present merged. The tumblers aligned. And Kelly and VanGorder literally created a monster.

As ninth-ranked Notre Dame moves away from a 38-3 trouncing of Texas — so thorough that the Longhorns offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, was demoted three days later — and into a road test Saturday at Virginia (0-1), the question that flutters around the quasi-historic numbers put up by the Irish defense opening weekend comes back to this: Is it sustainable?

“I think, if we stay injury free and if we can stay away from, obviously, losing key personnel, I think we can continue to grow as a defense,” Kelly said, “and continue to get better and play the kind of defense necessary to compete nationally.”

The substance behind his answer, behind sustainability starts with Smith, for two seasons the best athlete on the Irish defense, now decidedly Notre Dame’s best player.

That’s in part due to the sewing together of Smith’s old and new skill sets and adding some new opportunities. He now plays and excels at four positions in his evolved role — all three linebacker spots and rush end.

“I haven't coached a player like him before, period,” said Kelly, less than three seasons removed from coaching a consensus All-American in Te’o, when asked to put Smith into historical context.

Sustainability for the entire defense isn’t easy to decipher purely with the naked statistical eye. The Te’o-driven 2012 team that went from unranked in the preseason polls to No. 1 into its title matchup with Alabama, yielded 341 total yards in a 50-10 season-opening win over Navy.

But only once did that defense give up as many yards the rest of the regular season — 379 total but just 15 on the ground, in a 30-13 road upset of Oklahoma. That team hit its stride in game three, when it smothered Michigan State on the road, 20-3, yielding 50 rushing yards and 237 overall.

Last season started with a 367-yard defensive bottom line in a 48-17 rout of Rice. The Irish actually held three of the next opponents under the 300-yard threshold, including a 31-0 domination of Michigan. But even VanGorder warned the players the superlative stats meant they were ahead of the curve at the moment, not that they had actually arrived.

“This defense is a little different than the defense that a lot of these guys were part of earlier in their career,” Kelly said. “So driving home what the key elements are to be successful in this defense was just a process. It took time.”

The 163 yards ND limited Texas to last Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium was not only the lowest total logged by an FBS offense opening weekend, it was the best bottom line in a game by an ND unit since current Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta was co-conspiring ND’s defense with Corwin Brown in 2008 and overwhelmed a Ty Willingham-coached, 0-12 Washington team to the tune of 124 total yards.

The current Virginia offense, meanwhile, may not provide conclusive evidence of this ND defense’s sustainability litmus test.

Both the Cavaliers' 2014 starting quarterback, Greyson Lambert, and 2013 No. 1 QB option David Watford hit the escape hatch in the offseason, and that from an offense that was a pedestrian 85th nationally in total yards and 87th in scoring last season.

Lambert, an Anthropology major, picked up his degree in three years and bolted for Georgia, where he’s the starter with another year to play after this one. He opened Saturday with an impressive 8-of-12 for 141 yards and two TDs for the run-heavy Bulldogs in a 51-14 throttling of Louisiana-Monroe.

Watford, a client of private quarterback tutor George Whitfield’s in the spring of 2014 who went backward, finished last season as a wide receiver but is back at QB and starting again at his new home, FCS school Hampton.

He threw for 335 yards and five touchdowns with three picks in a season-opening victory over Kentucky State.

Default QB option Matt Johns, a lightly recruited 6-5, 210-pound junior, labored against UCLA’s defense in Virginia’s 34-16 season-opening loss last Saturday. Virginia stands 95th in total offense, 99th in scoring and 86th in passing efficiency coming into the second-ever football matchup with the Irish and first game played by ND in the commonwealth of Virginia.

Johns had made three starts in 2014 when Lambert was injured and played extensively as a reserve, so it wasn’t a total culture shock. But as was the case in 2014, there doesn’t appear to be a significant running game to offset Johns’ learning curve.

Or challenge what’s left of Jaylon Smith’s own.

“I’m always looking for that extra edge and trying to get better,” Smith said when pressed about what motivates him now that he’s accelerating into his gaudy potential. “I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied. It’s really unexplainable. Honestly, I just want to be the best.”

And take the people around him along for the ride — a ride that could very well end at ND when his junior season does.

A byproduct of Smith’s expanded skill set and rapid growth is soaring equity among NFL teams. Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller recently projected Smith going to the New York Giants at No. 12 in the first round of next April’s draft (with teammates Ronnie Stanley and KeiVarae Russell going fifth and 23rd, respectively).

It’s only Smith’s positon — as opposed to more coveted quarterbacks, left tackles, defensive ends — that pulls him out of the discussion for top overall pick, per Miller.

“Smith has the tools to be the best pro out of this class,” he wrote. “He's fast, strong, instinctive and shows the range to make plays all over the field.”

He also has the potential to be distracted by the NFL, something Kelly has said was a problem for him with NFL-aspiring/talented players when he first arrived at ND, but hasn’t been with Smith.

“I think he understands that the more success we have as a team, he'll gain that leverage individually moving forward,” Kelly said, “and all the players will.”

Smith’s big, brazen smile returned when pressed about striking the balance between his current dream and those screaming at him in the distance, and the decision that is ahead in the coming months regarding whether he’ll ever be a senior linebacker at Notre Dame.

“I don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’m focused on one thing, and that’s a national championship. And that’s really the only focus right now. It’s something that I really want and we really want collectively as a team.

“It’s what we need to keep our focus on and dial in each and every week with new goals.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (9) celebrates a sack during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN