Jaylon Smith led Notre Dame with 112 tackles and nine tackles for a loss, and added three and a half sacks, seven quarterback hurries, two broken up passes and one forced fumble last year. He was one of five Butkus Award finalists, too.
And he may have just scratched the surface of the kind of impact he can make for Notre Dame's defense.
Despite those standout numbers, offenses could still scheme against Smith in 2014, his first year playing Will inside linebacker in Brian VanGorder's defense. Teams could plan ahead to spread things wide and effectively take Smith out certain plays, rendering his elite athleticism irrelevant on a handful of snaps.
Don't expect that to be a frequent occurrence this fall. Smith cross-trained at Sam outside linebacker during spring practice earlier this year, and he'll float between there and Will this fall. With Joe Schmidt expected to cross-train at Mike and Will when he returns from an ankle injury, Notre Dame will have plenty of flexibility to find the right mix of linebackers when the 2015 season opens Sept. 5 against Texas.
"Part of it is getting the best linebackers on the field at the same time and really just being flexible," Smith said. "Offenses game planning for me, they won’t really have a feel of what exactly position I’m in. I won’t be consistently at this spot or consistently at the other spot. So really, that’s an advantage. Then it also helps me, picking my brain and building my football IQ. Learning multiple positions, I know all of the linebacker positions now."
Smith is the engine driving these efforts, but his movement will be the product of Notre Dame having excellent depth at all three linebacker positions. At Mike, there's Schmidt, Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan. At Will, there's Smith, Schmidt and early-enrolling freshman Te'von Coney. At Sam, there's Smith, incumbent starter James Onwualu and Greer Martini. And that's not counting incoming freshman Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas, who can take the preferred path of slowly wading into college waters instead of cannonballing into a starting role like Morgan was forced to do last November.
While coach Brian Kelly lauded Onwualu's progress during spring practice, in an all reality, Notre Dame's best three linebackers are Smith, Schmidt and Morgan. Grace and Onwualu will force themselves into the mix, too, and certainly aren't afterthoughts.
But if Schmidt can translate his rock-solid tackling skills and savant-level football I.Q. to Will, it'll free up Smith to fly around the field and be even more of a force than he was as a sophomore.
"That’s ideally in our system, we start cross-training linebackers, and we just haven’t had the ability to do so here," VanGorder said. "Last year we were real short in numbers and we got injuries, we came into spring ball and Joe’s not here and we got a backup Will linebacker that just came from high school that you’re trying to see how he’s coming along. ... You’ve got a lot of guys to develop and bring along. And they’ve gotta take advantage of it. This is their opportunity."