The top-ranked recruit at outside linebacker in the class of 2013 arrived at Notre Dame last summer with the potential to become a superstar. Jaylon Smith may not have earned that label yet, but after the true freshman started 12 games and emerged as a key cog in the Fighting Irish defense this season, he appears to be well on his way.
Smith, who ranks third on the team in tackles (61) and second in tackles for loss (6.5), passes defended (4) and pass breakups (3), will help lead a Notre Dame defense that has allowed just 5.17 yards per play (30th in the country) this season against (6-6) Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday at Yankee Stadium. He has already developed into one of the Irish's best defensive players, which is exactly what most observers expected when the graduate of Bishop Luers High in Fort Wayne, Ind., committed to Notre Dame in June 2012.
In Fort Wayne, Smith was a starter for the Knights for four years, starring on both sides of the ball. With him in the lineup, Bishop Luers won four Class 2A state championships, and Smith, as a senior, won the 2012 Butkus Award as the nation's top high school linebacker. In the Knights' 3-4 scheme, the versatile Smith -- who also played running back and rushed for 1,265 yards and 18 touchdowns during his senior season -- rushed the quarterback, defended passes and ran down ball carriers. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, his blend of size and speed made him a terror for opposing offenses.
"He was the fastest, if not the second fastest kid on the field every Friday night," Matt Millhouse, the defensive coordinator at Bishop Luers, said of Smith, who ran a hand-timed 4.4-second 40-yard dash at a recruiting camp in Indianapolis nearly two years ago. "He was a big kid, but he was just so athletic and fast."
Of all the great plays that Smith made throughout his high school career, Millhouse points to one during his junior season that illustrates both the breadth of Smith's skills and his attention to detail. After spending time in practice working on chipping receivers during the week leading up to a game against Indianapolis' Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, Smith applied exactly what he had learned -- and created a stunning highlight in the process. On a short pass thrown near midfield, he knocked down the intended receiver a few yards from the line of scrimmage, jumped high to intercept the ball and trucked a would-be tackler on his way out of bounds at the end of a 35-yard return.
"That was one of those freak plays you don't see very often," Millhouse said. "Kind of amazing."
At that point, Smith had already drawn the attention of coaches from elite college programs. He has singled out a Nike recruiting camp in Columbus, Ohio, near the end of his sophomore year as the moment when his recruiting stock began to soar. Smith got scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and USC, among other BCS conference powers. After verbally committing to Notre Dame, he continued to participate in 7-on-7 tournaments and recruiting camps, in part because he wanted his teammates to benefit from the coaches' attention that his presence attracted.
"When Jaylon came through, it really started blowing up, where a lot of schools knew who we were," Millhouse said. "It almost got ridiculous at some point. We had so many coaches coming in, day in and day out."
When the Fighting Irish opened preseason camp in early August, Smith was third on the depth chart at the "Dog" linebacker position. After senior Danny Spond was forced to stop playing because of hemiplegic migraines, Smith beat out sophomore Ben Councell for the starting spot.
Dog linebacker is one of the most complex positions in Notre Dame's 3-4 defense. Fortunately for Smith, it accentuates his biggest strength, versatility, by allowing him to both drop into coverage and rush the passer.
"The cool part about being the Dog linebacker is that you're working directly with the defensive backs, but at the same time you're also working with the D-line," said Spond, who served as a player-coach for Notre Dame this season. "From my point of view and experience with the system, I think the position suits him perfectly."
"With that position, you have to be able to do multiple things," said Smith. "One snap, you're asked to cover a slot guy, like [Notre Dame senior receiver] T.J. Jones. The next snap, you have to deal with a 300-pound lineman. So one play you're in pass coverage, one play you're rushing."
During the early part of the season, Spond regularly gave Smith pointers on the sideline between defensive series. Toward the end of the season, as Smith grasped more and more of the nuances of the Dog's role, his sideline conversations with Spond became less frequent. Though Smith was inconsistent and made some mistakes in the first few games, he says he felt more comfortable by October, pointing to the Fighting Irish's 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 as the moment when he felt he finally could "take a deep breath and play the game the way I have been playing since I was seven years old. I was able to be myself and contribute to the team."
Two weeks later, Smith made eight tackles to help lead Notre Dame to a three-point win over eventual Pac-12 South champion Arizona State. In a loss at Pittsburgh on Nov. 9, he had a season-high 11 tackles. His rapid progression was pivotal in helping the Fighting Irish defense overcome a series of debilitating injuries. By the end of the regular season, his body of work was such that Athlon Sports named him to the first-team defense of its 2013 Postseason All-Freshman team.
Next season, Smith should play an even bigger role for a unit that will lose several key contributors, including linebackers Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, cornerback Bennett Jackson, tackle Louis Nix III and, possibly, end Stephon Tuitt. Smith hopes to improve his strength, while keeping his weight around 230 pounds, so he can be a more physical player.
"Just trying to get stronger so that physicality presence will show," said Smith, who notes that he is able to lift far more weight now than he could during his senior year at Bishop Luers.
The key to Smith's development, however, will be more mental than physical. He wants to improve his ability to recognize before the snap whether the offense is running a pass or run play.
"Knowing when to look down at a receiver and position myself to where I can disrupt the ball and really keep improving my game, as far as recognizing whether it's a run or a pass," he said. If Smith can refine some of those aspects of his game, how good can he become?
"I think it's nice to be able to tell somebody, You can be as good as you want to be," says Spond. "I really think that's the case with Jaylon. If he wants to be the greatest linebacker in the country and go to the NFL as soon as he can -- I really think he can."
For Smith, those goals certainly appear to be within his reach.