Gator Bowl: Jaylen Sneed, pride of the Palmetto State, looks forward to 'great experience'

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. — Meaningless Gator Bowl? Not for Jaylen Sneed.

Notre Dame’s five-star freshman linebacker from Hilton Head Island, S.C., isn’t just looking forward to an expanded role on Friday afternoon at TIAA Bank Field. When he goes to work against No. 21 South Carolina, he’ll be trying to silence certain family members intent on rooting for the Gamecocks.

“There’s been a lot of trash talking at my house lately,” Sneed said before heading south for a week of bowl practices. “I mean, even my friends are all South Carolina fans. There’s just been a lot of stuff going around, but I’ve been telling them all: ‘Go Irish.’ We’re going to win.”

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The naysayers include his older sister, Chynna, a junior at the state university in Columbia, which is 155 miles north of their hometown in the Lowcountry. Her Christmas wish list included a strange request that her younger brother is still trying to process.

“She was thinking about getting like a half Sneed/half Spencer Rattler jersey,” Sneed said, referring to South Carolina’s star quarterback, “but I told her no.”

So, which team’s colors will Chynna wear to the Gator Bowl?

“USC,” he said, shaking his head at the combination of garnet and black. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Jaylen Sneed makes a catch during a Monday Night practice at Fernandina Beach High School Dec. 26, 2022. Notre Dame plays South Carolina Friday, Dec. 30 in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. Sneed hails from South Carolina.

Way back on Dec. 4, when the bowl matchups came out, Sneed was the rare Notre Dame-focused viewer who wasn’t pulling for a Holiday Bowl slot in San Diego. After experiencing the field-storming upset of fourth-ranked Clemson a month earlier, he quickly warmed to the possibility of a home-state sweep in his first college season.

“I was so excited,” Sneed said. “I’m able to play (against) some people that I know from home. Some of my friends play on that team, so it’ll be a great experience.”

'Making adjustments'

No fewer than 50 Palmetto State products are listed on the South Carolina football roster posted on the school’s website.

That includes a pair of freshman preferred walk-ons from Hilton Head Island: defensive back Jace Blackshear, who played at a neighboring private school, and running back Chase McCracken, Sneed’s teammate on the B.J. Payne-coached Seahawks.

Competing nationally on the youth AAU track circuit, where Sneed was the top-ranked shot putter at age 8, gave him a natural wanderlust. He had offers from virtually every major football program in the country, but former South Carolina coach Will Muschamp threw his hat in the ring with an offer in mid-July before Sneed’s junior year.

Muschamp’s dismissal and Shane Beamer’s subsequent hiring left the Gamecocks well behind in the race for the state’s eventually Mr. Football. Marcus Freeman made an early connection while at Cincinnati and carried that over once he was hired as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator.

Sneed committed to the Irish on July 12 before his senior season, but even so he still made an unofficial visit to South Carolina on Nov. 27.

“It wasn’t a big consideration because I was always committed here to coach Freeman and Notre Dame,” Sneed said. “I loved it here. I just wanted to see what (South Carolina) had to offer because my sister went there, and my mom (Chanta Ellison) wanted me to take a visit.”

Clemson’s 30-0 win didn’t help the Gamecocks’ recruiting cause, but Brian Kelly’s stunning departure for LSU two days later nearly changed everything for Sneed and his family.

“At first it was difficult because me and my mom didn’t know what was going to happen,” Sneed said on Feb. 4, weeks after enrolling at Notre Dame. “We were hoping it was going to be coach Freeman, but we were making adjustments just in case it wasn’t. Definitely, if it wasn’t coach Freeman (as Kelly’s successor), I was going to open my recruitment back up.”

'Speed kills'

In that same February interview, Sneed was asked what would get him on the field by the time the real games started in the fall.

“I think I’m special because speed kills,” he said. “I think I’m faster than most of the linebackers here right now. If I just show how explosive I am and I’m able to get to my spots and learn the playbook, I think I’ll be able to get on the field early.”

It didn’t happen that way for Sneed, even as he worked with Matt Balis – “one of the best strength coaches in the world” – to reshape his 6-foot-2 frame to hold its current 220 pounds, up significantly from his reporting weight of 197. By next season Sneed has set his sights on playing at 225-230.

“I’ve gotten way more powerful in my punch,” he said. “I’m able to go off the edge if I want to, able to long-arm defenders when I need to. Working with Balis just made me a lot more physical guy. It makes me feel stronger and like I can do it.”

Jaylen Sneed during football practice April 2, 2022 at the Irish Athletics Center in South Bend.

With better practice habits, Sneed earned his way onto the travel roster for both road wins in October: against BYU in Las Vegas and at Syracuse. Already on the redshirt track, however, he didn’t get into either game.

Frustration easily could have slipped in, but Sneed’s support system wouldn’t let that happen.

“Oh, it was definitely hard for me – definitely,” Sneed said recently. “A lot of conversations with my mom and her just helping me through it and coach Freeman always saying that there’s a bumpy road. When your chance comes, you’ve got to make the most of it.”

To date Sneed has been on the field for just 33 plays, including 11 on kickoff coverage. Indications are he will get more defensive snaps in the Gator Bowl, especially with the Gamecocks down three tight ends due to the transfer portal and attrition.  

Sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie, another highly recruited talent from Jonesborough, Tenn., kept an eye on Sneed this season.

“He reminds me a lot of myself, so I really try to help him where I can,” Kollie said during Syracuse week. “I try to keep his spirits up because it’s tough. Especially being a linebacker, it’s really tough to get on the field. We have to be sharp in all areas. He’s learning that this is different from high school. That’s what I had to learn, too.”

Even then, Kollie could see the progress.

“He’s figuring it out every day,” he said. “I’m proud of him and how far he’s come since the spring. Naturally, he’s a hitter. He’s a lot like me. He’s really strong with his hands. He can run to the ball. Those are the things that he’s really good at. He’s figuring out the defense. It’s a lot on his plate, but he’s learning it.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman, left, along with players and staff, take a look at TIAA Bank Field Thursday morning. The Irish play South Carolina Friday at 3:30 p.m. in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

78th Annual TaxSlayer Gator Bowl 

  • Who: No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4) vs. No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) 
  • When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. EST 
  • Where: TIAA Bank Field (67,164), Jacksonville, Fla. 
  • TV/Radio: ESPN, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 
  • Line: Notre Dame is a 4.5 -point favorite  
  • Series: Notre Dame leads 3-1 
  • Last meeting: South Carolina won 36-32 in South Bend in 1984.