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Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith seeking every answer in pursuit of greatness

Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith seeking every answer in pursuit of greatness Photo:

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- “Well,” Jaylon Smith says, “I want to be better than Manti.”

He looks a little incredulous, actually. He has been talking in a Notre Dame football complex office and absently thumbing through a media guide. Now, Smith has been asked if he is motivated to become the next great Fighting Irish linebacker, picking up where former All-America and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o left off two seasons ago. The sophomore with the 6-foot-2, 235-pound frame and 3.1 percent body fat reflexively replies yes. Then Smith's chin lifts, his head bends slightly to the left and his brow furrows. He realizes it's not the right question. Or at least not a complete answer.

Jaylon Smith wants to be the next great Notre Dame linebacker. This is true. It's also not the whole truth.

By the time he's done, Smith believes that particular line will form behind him.

“It's something I know I can handle,” Smith says. “It's just a matter of waiting and seeing, you know what I mean?”

*****

If Notre Dame is to contend for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff this season, a defense with several new starters, a new coordinator and a new scheme must be much more than adequate. For that defense to be much more than adequate, Jaylon Smith must be much more than good.

The nation's consensus top defensive recruit in the class of 2013, Smith started 13 games as a freshman and recorded 67 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, one forced fumble and one interception. In a straight 4-3 under first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder, it appears Smith will be a nominal outside linebacker who often lines up between the tight ends. He will be in the middle of everything, precisely where Notre Dame needs its most dangerous defender.

“He can do anything he wants, if he wants to,” Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell says. “He's 230-something [pounds], probably runs a 4.4. Come on now. Catches all our backs, sideline to sideline. When they run curl routes to the wide receiver, a deep curl, he'll get to the curl route by the time [the receiver] catches it. Being that size, being that fast, it's kind of scary.”

There is no arguing Smith's physical gifts, which enabled him to record 23 reps of a 225-pound bench press at age 19 this offseason. Yet those who have coached Smith would argue that such attributes aren't noteworthy without his boundless desire to learn and implement every morsel of information he absorbs. “With Jaylon, the best way to simplify him is to say he's a freak athlete,” says Michael Ledo, the owner of AWP Sports Training in Fort Wayne, Ind., the hometown facility in which Smith has trained since high school. “But that is like his least greatest asset. His greatest asset is his mind.”

It has been three summers since Smith set that mind to becoming the premier linebacker in the country. Following his sophomore year at Fort Wayne's Bishop Luers High, his AWP-based 7-on-7 team took part in a tournament in Pittsburgh at nearby Gateway High. Smith was, as Ledo put it, still “a big puppy,” long and rangy, even a bit clumsy. Smith had never encountered such high-caliber competition and his squad was quickly bounced from the event. Nevertheless, Smith and Ledo sat behind the goalposts to watch an elite Michigan team featuring future Wolverines running back Dennis Norfleet. At one point, Norfleet juked defenders with such violence that the entire Michigan contingent went berserk. Ledo remembers seeing goosebumps on Smith's arms as the scene unfolded.

That's when Smith voiced his desire to perform at that level. That's when Ledo heard Smith say he wanted to be the top linebacker in the nation.

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On the ride back from Pittsburgh, Ledo played Christian rap while most of his players in the 15-passenger van listened to music or slept. One rider in the second row remained awake. Smith straddled the space and poked his head into the front while Ledo and an assistant coach discussed the path to becoming a great player. Smith was no idle audience. “This dude was like all up in our business the whole time we were talking, engaged in discussion, asking questions,” Ledo says. “'How do we achieve this? How do we do this?' That's where I saw what his fiber was. This dude wants to compete, and he wants to learn.”

At Bishop Luers, Smith always chose the seat next to defensive coordinator Matt Millhouse during film sessions. The two watched film before school. They watched film after school. Thanks to the emergence of tools to access video on mobile devices, Smith watched film essentially whenever he could.

He sought insight on every possible angle, maybe because at some point he played nearly every possible position, from running back to defensive end to multiple linebacker spots. He examined the opposing offensive line's blocking schemes as much as the Bishop Luers defensive line's tactics to counter them. Early in Smith's high school career, Millhouse actually told his prized pupil to relax, lest he paralyze himself with information. By his senior year, Smith was almost a student assistant, suggesting new schemes or ways to bring pressure.

“Early in his career, he decided he's going to know what the hell is going on on defense, or what's going on in football in general,” says Millhouse, who is now a defensive backs assistant at the University of Saint Francis, an NAIA school in Fort Wayne. “Football was his craft and he was going to know everything about it. He gave us the ability to really advance our defense and run a lot of stuff, because he's like a sponge. You keep feeding him knowledge, and he's going to soak it up. That becomes contagious, and everybody else falls in line.”

After helping Millhouse with yard work one day, Smith was treated to a fishing venture in the eight-acre lake beyond Millhouse's backyard. An interrogation inexorably followed. Smith asked about baiting. He asked about casting and reeling. He asked what he was supposed to do if he got a bite, and when he did, what he was supposed to do after that. “He's asking a million questions about fishing that I don't even know the answers to,” Millhouse says. “He caught a catfish and wanted to know all about this catfish. I just said, 'Get it off the hook.'”

Smith skittishly refused. Consider it one time he regretted the answer he got.

STAPLES: How do college coaches hit big on some smaller recruits?

*****

Once at Notre Dame, Jaylon Smith's career received a boost when another one fatefully ended: Danny Spond, who started 11 games at outside linebacker during the program's run to the 2013 BCS championship game, retired from football last August due to debilitating hemiplegic migraines thought to be brought on by playing. Spond's intelligence was his greatest distinction; Bob Diaco, the former Irish defensive coordinator and current Connecticut head coach, told Spond before last preseason he would be on the field because he was the smartest guy out there. Spond remained with the team as a de facto assistant. And while it was via circumstances no one desired, Smith suddenly had a willing and astute tutor as he ascended into a starting role.

“Man, 70 percent of my success [last year] was because of Spond, to be honest,” Smith says. “He always brought things to my mind, he always challenged me to get better every week, every day practically. Just a shadow. Critiquing every little thing.”

Smith asked his share of questions, but often they were preempted by Spond's Socratic pop quizzes. What are you trying to get out of practice today? How are you taking care of yourself off the field -- what are you eating, what are you doing with nights off? During practices and film sessions, Spond directed Smith's eyes to telling subtleties. What was the tight end's stance and what does that mean? What did the guard tell you? Where is the tailback standing in a shotgun set? If the back set up a foot away from the quarterback, Spond told Smith to prepare for a draw. If the separation was three or four feet, Spond advised Smith to get into his pass drop immediately, as there was virtually no chance of a run.

When Notre Dame settled in at hotels on the nights before games, Spond was Smith's assigned roommate. That shared space became an auxiliary classroom, with the pair poring over Diaco's final checkpoints and talking through any questions. The next morning, they would wake up and discuss the night before. “When Jaylon got there, that was kind of my mission: Shave off a couple years and develop his mental part of the game,” says Spond, who now works for a healthcare technology company in Hilton Head, S.C. “Whenever coach asks you questions, you always say yes, but do you really understand? When you're able to regurgitate back and actually have it make sense, that's when you really know.”

Notre Dame 2014 Schedule
 
date opponent
Aug. 30 Rice
Sept. 6 Michigan
Sept. 13 Purdue (in Indianapolis)
Sept. 27 Syracuse (in East Rutherford, N.J.)
Oct. 4 Stanford
Oct. 11 North Carolina
Oct. 18 at Florida State
Nov. 1 at Navy
Nov. 8 at Arizona State
Nov. 15 Northwestern
Nov. 22 Louisville
Nov. 29 at USC

In the sixth game of the 2013 season, Notre Dame faced Arizona State, which features a kinetic spread offense. It was the sort of multiple-look, high-speed attack that would test how quickly Smith processed information. Smith finished with a team-high nine tackles and a forced fumble in a 37-34 win. Though he can't recall the specific play, Spond said he at one point asked Smith why he was able to make a big stop once the freshman came to the sideline. Smith recited the Sun Devils' formation, referred to the tendencies he gleaned from his game book and said he changed his alignment accordingly.

“It was like a proud father-and-son-type deal,” Spond says.

By his eighth game, a 38-34 win over Navy on Nov. 2, Smith had recorded an interception, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble. It took Te'o 39 career outings to accomplish all that. Maybe it's more coincidence than striking milepost, but Smith knew what he was doing just four months after arriving in South Bend.

Still, there was one more lesson Spond imparted: If Smith wanted to be an All-America, he had to know what everyone else was doing, too.

*****

During the summer's voluntary workouts, Notre Dame's defensive line gathered as a group unto itself, while the linebackers and defensive backs participated in 7-on-7 competition against the offense. It was a logical delineation of duties. Also logical, at least to Jaylon Smith, was finishing his 7-on-7 session and then migrating to where the heavies toiled in order to hone his pass-rush techniques.

Smith and veteran defensive lineman Sheldon Day worked on edge rushes, bull rushes and the situations in which Smith would use either move. If Day gave him a head-up alignment, for example, Smith had to read it as an inside rush. It was a keen focus on the details of a position Smith wasn't expected to play. It was also unexpected. “That did surprise me, I'm not gonna lie,” Day says. “He came over, I worked with him a couple days, and next thing you know all the other linebackers wanted to do pass-rush drills.”

Smith is not the middle linebacker in the Irish's new 4-3 scheme. That is currently former walk-on Joe Schmidt. So, while Smith is not technically the epicenter of the entire defensive operation, he has laid claim to the unit anyway.

“My whole thing is I'm trying to learn the whole defense,” Smith says. “Master all the linebacker groups: what the Will has to do, what the Sam has to do, what the Mike has to do. And then moving on down to the defensive line, the fronts and the moves and the stunts they have to call and make. Really, it's just trying to see the big picture. If I know what other people have to do, I can help them.”

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After Notre Dame finished its first preseason practice during a five-day stint at Culver Military Academy in Culver, Ind., Schmidt offered a review of his rapport with Smith that shimmered as much as the backdrop of 1,864-acre Lake Maxinkuckee. The senior inside linebacker said he and Smith could already talk through their initial reads and reposition the rest of the personnel fluidly. Smith essentially does half of Schmidt's job for him. “Having someone like that, and also having him be incredibly talented, makes it a lot easier for the Mike linebacker to play,” Schmidt says. “I hardly ever have to worry about Jaylon. Which is nice.”

Smith, meanwhile, is concerned with holding his teammates to a higher standard. During a spring meeting, when one answered a question inaudibly, Smith barked at the player to speak up so the whole room could hear. Over the summer in Fort Wayne, Smith and incoming freshman linebacker Drue Tranquill camped in AWP's multipurpose room between training sessions. Smith scribbled schemes on the white board and the two players covered the walls with posterboards featuring other Irish defensive alignments. “It's more than just leading by example now, with the role that I have,” Smith says. “[It's] getting the team behind you. Actually getting their trust. That's where learning the defense, learning the concepts of what everyone is trying to do, that's where that lies. It boosts my confidence as well, when I'm firm with what I'm teaching them. It makes no sense if I don't know what they're doing.”

Here, he is hinting at what everyone thinks.

“The one thing he's excited about -- he won't say it, but he knows he's the man,” says Ledo, Smith's longtime mentor. “He knows a leader's success is not determined by his own personal success but by the success of his team. He's driven by, we're going to be about as successful as I can lead.”

ELLIS: 2014 schedule guide: Which games will determine the playoff race?

*****

Notre Dame's occasional community service events sometimes place Jaylon Smith in a room full of kids, who gravitate to his energy, smile and hair. He loves it, ducking down so the children can play with his long dreadlocks. He is on the cover of magazines now. He gets asked for pictures and autographs. The reverence for Smith was so striking to Tranquill upon his arrival to campus that the newcomer remarked to Ledo: It's like Jaylon hung the moon.

The place is becoming his, much like it became Te’o’s not long ago. In some senses, Smith is identical to the charismatic Heisman finalist who preceded him, who hosted him on a recruiting visit and who has been a friend and mentor ever since. In other ways -- that give-me-a-break athleticism, for one -- Smith is his own burgeoning epic.

Yet when he and Te'o talk, the conversation regularly veers to how Smith can establish a legacy off the field. Te'o tells him to remain humble, to say hello to dining hall workers and training table chefs. A simple thank you from the head man, Te'o says, goes a long way.

To that end Smith argues he is just like the other players, one guy with a job to do. He was also the one guy in the locker room with Te’o this April, the two of them talking for nearly a half-hour as the San Diego Chargers linebacker visited for the Notre Dame spring game. When they reconnected, they spoke about how nice it would have been to play one year together.

As the conversation wore on, Smith sensed something like Te'o passing the torch. The Irish's next defensive star snatched at it anyway: Smith told Te'o he wanted to be better than him. He wanted to be better than the best linebacker in school history.

Te'o chuckled. And he understood.

“That's what his mindset has to be, you know?” Te'o says. “I expected it from him. I would tell anybody the same thing when I got there. If somebody had set a certain standard, and somebody asked me about that, about playing in somebody's shadow, I would say I'm trying to do it better than him. I'm trying to go farther than that person went. That's how certain people think -- we don't want to be just another number. I wanted to make sure that nobody ever did it the way I did it. Nobody wore that [No. 5] jersey the way I did it. That's what I told him: You have to leave that legacy behind, that nobody will wear that No. 9 the way you wore it. You can't come in thinking, 'I'm not going to be better than the best.' When you come to Notre Dame, you want to be the best to ever do it.”

It's just a matter of waiting and seeing.

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