Notebook: Notre Dame coaches challenge Jaylon Smith for more

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — His numbers are up from 2014, his tape even more spectacular, his continual climb in NFL mock drafts almost monotonous.

And yet, Notre Dame junior linebacker Jaylon Smith is finding himself being pushed by his coaching staff to increase his overall impact.

By making the players around him better.

Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose defense takes a ho-hum No. 46 national total defense ranking into Saturday’s matchup between AP No. 8 Notre Dame (7-1) and Pitt (6-2), challenged Smith in front of the Showtime cameras to, among other things, help straighten out ND’s uneven secondary play.

Kickoff at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh is set for noon EST. ABC-TV has the national telecast.

“No, no,” Smith said with a laugh when asked whether VanGorder’s directive came as a surprise. “He always challenges me with new things. I’m just a sponge, soaking everything in. If he gives me advice, I’m going to take it in and try to run with it.”

But ND’s leading tackler with 66 — 20 more than No. 2 KeiVarae Russell — will do so on his own terms.

“Any leader leads their own way,” Smith said. “It’s important that as I continue to take steps forward, that I continue to stay true to who I am, not try to be someone I’m not.”

Smith is one of Notre Dame’s five captains this season, four of whom play on defense. But the leadership piece for many players, at least the part about holding teammates accountable, doesn’t always show itself right away.

That was the case with two-time captain and current senior defensive lineman Sheldon Day, much more vocal this season than he’s ever been, and former Irish All-America linebacker Manti Te’o, still a mentor to Smith.

Te’o was reluctant to verbally push his teammates before his senior season.

“The leadership piece for Jaylon has been one where he had led by example,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We don’t think that that’s enough to be a great leader.

“We have to be somebody that is interactive, if you will. He’s got to be communicating. He’s got to be teaching and communicating, so it has to be more than just actions.”

In addition to Smith’s 66 tackles, his on-field actions comprise six tackles for loss, a sack, three pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.

“We know about his actions,” Kelly said. “They’re phenomenal. You just watch him play. And that speaks volumes. We want him to be more of a communicator with the guys, and that’s the point that we wanted to make with him.

“He took it to heart after a conversation of what he needed to do. It’s really mentoring and communicating his experiences and his learning curve, and I think he understood that.”

Born to run?

Through eight games and six starts this season, redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer already has more rushing yards (318 on 72 carries with 5 TDs) than any Notre Dame quarterback has amassed in an entire season since Carlyle Holiday ran for 666 yards (on 56 carries, 2 TDs) in 2001, the final year of the Bob Davie Era.

In retrospect, that’s the most surprising part for Kizer about how his first shot at meaningful playing time has unfolded.

“When committing here, I never really prepared myself to be the true dual-threat style of guy as I was evaluating Notre Dame,” Kizer said. “I was evaluating (the) Tommy Rees era, where he was a little under center, got in the shotgun here and there. (I) thought that would be the style of offense I would run if I was the quarterback here.”

In 46 career games at Notre Dame, Rees (the Irish starter in 2013, the last time ND faced Pitt) threw for 7,670 yards with 61 TDs and 37 interceptions.

As far as running the ball, his career rushing total was minus-127 yards on 58 carries. Kizer has had almost that many rushes (54) over the past four games.

“Obviously, with the adjustments from Everett (Golson) to Malik (Zaire) and now myself, it's a skill set I think I have and I've been pretty successful with,” Kizer said. “I believe that I have the size and the ability to continue to carry the ball if that's what the team needs.”

Added Kelly, “I didn’t undersell him in that sense that he couldn’t be part of our run game. We didn’t see him the same way we saw Malik in the run game, but we saw somebody that at 6-foot-5, 235-240 pounds, he’s an asset in the run game. He’s a lot faster than people think, obviously. And we saw that last week.”

Ironically, it was a dual-threat quarterback, former Syracuse and NFL star Donovan McNabb, who was Kizer’s first strong influence in terms of learning the position.

“My dad is a huge (Philadelphia) Eagles fan,” he said. “I like to say if it wasn't for Donovan McNabb, I probably wouldn't even be a quarterback. I like to think of Donovan McNabb as my first quarterback coach.

“My dad was a basketball player growing up, didn't know much about football. We would throw in YouTube clips, (and) he would try to teach me off of what Donovan was doing.”

No mixed signals

Some member of the media noticed, and Kelly later did too upon rewatching the game, that Temple head coach MattMatt Rhule Rhule appeared to be having a conversation with Irish cornerback Cole Luke late in ND’s 24-20 victory over Rhule’s Owls, Saturday night in Philadelphia.

“It was (after) the (KeiVarae Russell) interception, and he was just staring at the sideline,” Kelly said of Luke. “Coach had said something to him. Cole said that he was not disrespectful in any way. It was just the heat of the game, and that coach Rhule came up to him after and was complimentary about the way he played. So I left it and we moved on.”

Squibs

• Notre Dame senior offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley on Thursday made the cut to 12 semifinalists for the Lombardi Award, given annually to the nation’s best college lineman (offensive or defensive) or linebacker.

Stanley was one of three offensive linemen who made the list. Two of the opposing players who have given Stanley and the Irish offensive line the most problems to date, Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson and Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich, also landed in the semifinal pool.

• Who knew there was a National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum?

Not only does one exist, it’s selling Rudy bobblehead dolls for $30, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the famed Notre Dame walk-on’s movie-inspiring sack against Georgia Tech.

“I hope this bobblehead serves as a symbol for people to dream big and follow their passion,” Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger actually said in a press release.

The dolls are available at www.BobbleheadHall.com.

• Former Notre Dame star defensive end Stephon Tuitt, now a Pittsburgh Steeler, tweeted on his Twitter account Thursday that he plans to take in ND’s game with Pitt in person on Saturday.

Tuitt was a spectator for most of the game the last time the two teams played. He was ejected for targeting in a 28-21 Irish come-from-ahead loss in 2013 at Heinz Field.

• Notre Dame is 16-4 under head Kelly when ranked in the AP top 10, with all four losses coming to teams ranked No. 12 or higher at the time: to No. 2 Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, in 2014 at No. 2 Florida State (Oct. 18) and No. 11 Arizona State (Nov. 8), and on Oct. 3 this season at No. 12 Clemson, now the No. 1 team in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season.

The Irish checked in at No. 5 in Tuesday in the CFP rankings.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

The Irish coaches feel Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) must do more than lead by example. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHEN: Saturday at noon. (EST)

WHERE: Heinz Field; Pittsburgh

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 9