Notebook: Jaylon Smith maintains connection to Notre Dame defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He is more than 20 months removed from the freak injury that ended his Notre Dame football career and ladled uncertainty all over what was supposed to follow.

And yet Jaylon Smith continues to inspire, continues to communicate with Notre Dame’s current players, continues to help a new defensive coaching regime reshape the culture on that side of the ball.

On Saturday, the former Irish All-America linebacker will have to settle for rooting from a distance as Notre Dame (1-1) visits Boston College (1-1).

Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. EDT, and ESPN has the telecast in the first meeting between the two teams at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass., since the Irish walked in as the No. 4 team in the country in 2012 and walked out with a 21-6 victory.

Smith will be in Denver getting ready for a Sunday matchup between Smith’s current team, the Dallas Cowboys, and the host Broncos. It will be his second game, aside from August cameos in exhibitions, since tearing multiple knee ligaments and suffering career-threatening nerve damage in his left knee.

In his first game back, this past Sunday, Smith started at middle linebacker for Dallas and had seven tackles and a forced fumble in a 19-3 smothering of the New York Giants. The Giants gained 233 total yards, just 35 of them on the ground, and Smith played 36 of the 53 defensive snaps.

“I didn’t see the (Giants) game, but I have followed him and have been in contact,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday evening, shortly before the Irish departed for the East Coast. “And he has been terrific with our players and staying in contact with them.

“I can’t think of one guy who has been more motivating to our players in watching his comeback from injury and just the way he’s handled himself.”

Sophomore Daelin Hayes, a starting defensive end for the Irish, wears Smith’s old uniform No. 9 as a tribute to the three-year Irish standout.

Smith himself played in one game against BC, one in which the Irish struggled mightily with five lost turnovers back on Nov. 21, 2015. In what was technically an Irish home game, as part of the Shamrock Series, Notre Dame’s 19-16 escape at Fenway Park in Boston moved the College Football Playoff committee to drop the Irish out of the fourth and final playoff-spot trajectory down to No. 6.

Notre Dame ended up playing Ohio State in the non-playoff Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016, with Smith suffering the knee injury early in the 44-28 Irish loss.

Before the injury, Smith was projected as a top 5 pick overall. Dallas took a chance with the third pick in the second round of the 2016 draft, knowing Smith might not play at all in 2016 — or ever.

Last Sunday night, all the lingering doubts melted away.

“I saw something on (ESPN’s) SportsCenter about his attention to detail,” Kelly said. “And I was really happy to see that, because we talk a lot about that. So I sent him something about attention to detail, and he was all over it. I was pretty fired up about that.”

Sifting through the options

Kelly still loves his wide receiver depth, and the versatility that the 11 of them developed in the offseason. But the focus this week is paring down a rotation that is perhaps too deep, as well as defining roles more rigidly to help advance the overall passing game.

“I think after this weekend, everybody’s going to have a clearer view of the guys that need to be out on the field more and what our direction’s going to be,” Kelly said. “But we do have to start to feature some guys that maybe don’t have all the experience, but have a higher ceiling at times.”

One of those could be sophomore Chase Claypool. The 6-foot-4, 228-pound Canada native has one catch for 16 yards in very limited opportunities through two games.

“Where does Claypool fit? Here’s a young receiver who just needs some seasoning,” Kelly said. “He needs some time. But is he an inside guy, is he an outside guy?”

Those were actually rhetorical questions. Kelly has made the decision, but didn’t want to give away the answer to BC.

“The first move here is to settle into where these guys can best help us,” Kelly said. “And then I think everything flows from there.”

Opportunity knocking?

Freshman Jonathan Doerer was expected to open the season as Notre Dame’s kickoff man until a bout of leg fatigue in late August prompted the Irish coaches to go with place-kicker Justin Yoon in ND’s first two games instead.

Four of Yoon’s 14 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks.

Doerer is making the trip to BC, and Kelly said his plan later Thursday night was to meet with special teams coordinator Brian Polian to decide if Saturday is the right time for Doerer’s college debut.

“Here’s what I can tell you — he had a real good week,” Kelly said.

New center of attention

When Boston College true freshman Ben Petrula lined up at center last weekend against Wake Forest, it was the first time the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder played the position in a game at any level. The Eagles had been working him at tackle.

BC’s starter going into the season, Jon Baker, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Eagles’ season-opening win over Northern Illinois.

Notre Dame’s defense will want to take advantage of Petrula’s inexperience, but Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush may remind them that’s perhaps not as easy as it sounds.

As a high school sophomore, Petrula was part of an offensive line unit at Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep that didn’t allow a sack until the team’s state title victory over Paramus Catholic.

Two other BC regulars are former high school teammates of Wimbush’s as well — grad senior starting wide receiver Charlie Callinan and redshirt junior starting running back Jon Hilliman.

As for Wimbush, Kelly said the junior had a strong week of practice following a choppy performance against a tough Georgia defense last Saturday.

“It’s clearly articulating to him that you don’t have to go out and be spectacular,” Kelly said. “You just have to go out and be Brandon Wimbush.

“And that is pick up on the little things, keep growing from there. There’s still a learning curve out there for you. So we don’t expect you to have everything down after this week. Let’s grow from what happened last week, and I thought that happened this week.”

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54), formerly of Notre Dame, lines up against the New York Giants during an NFL football game last Sunday in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/ROGER STEINMAN)