SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Asking Notre Dame players to describe junior linebacker Jaylon Smith in one word is a largely futile effort without having a thesaurus handy.
“Remarkable, phenomenal, exceptional, extraordinary,” graduate student linebacker Joe Schmidt rattled off. “It’s almost to the point where it’s mutant, you know, just like, crazy. It’s close.”
Added senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day: “I don’t think amazing would be sufficient enough.”
Smith led Notre Dame with 112 tackles and nine tackles for a loss last year and added three and a half sacks (the second highest total on the Irish). Those numbers were good enough for Smith to be named as one of five finalists for the Butkus Award but only represented a fraction of the impact Notre Dame thinks the Fort Wayne, Ind., native can make this fall.
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While Notre Dame’s defense runs through its Mike linebacker and imploded last year after Schmidt suffered a season-ending injury in early November, Smith is the most talented player defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has at his disposal. The former five-star recruit was learning both a new position and a new scheme during his sophomore season and put up those numbers with a somewhat shaky understanding of the Irish defense.
Smith spent the offseason studying not only his position but the responsibilities of the defensive line and secondary. That’s important; Smith feels he not only understands his role better but where he fits around his 10 teammates in VanGorder’s scheme.
“When you understand the full concept of the defense, it makes everything much easier,” Smith said. “Right now I have an understanding of what the D-line is supposed to do, what’s the cornerbacks’ and the defensive backs’ objective, what’s their responsibility. That way, when I have young guys out there who aren’t sure, they can come to me, I can tell them, I can communicate and make sure they’re aligned correctly and things like that. So it’s just an added piece to my football I.Q.”
The hope is Notre Dame can unleash Smith, armed with that knowledge of the defense, more this fall. He’ll slide outside from the Will to Sam in certain situations, with the goal to keep opposing offenses from scheming against Smith to effectively take him out of plays.
“He is an essential figure in what we do,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He's all over the field for us defensively, and we'll make sure that we move him around to put him in a position for him to impact what we do defensively. He's no longer somebody that just ties down one position. He can play multiple positions on our defense, and we think he's one of the best football players in the country.”
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VanGorder said it’s fair to expect Smith to eclipse his 2014 numbers, which while solid, weren’t elite. Smith’s 112 tackles were tied for the 49th most among FBS players, while his tackles for a loss total wasn’t in the top 100.
Senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell was blown away by the strides Smith made since he last played with him in 2013.
“He’s a freak, man,” Russell said. “He’s going to be the best in the country, most likely. He’s that good. But you can see his physique, since I’ve known him he’s probably gained about 10, 15 pounds of solid muscle, and his understanding of the game is unreal. He understands the defensive playbook inside and out.
“He flies to the ball every single play. He doesn’t take a play off. As a freshman, you saw the spark at all times, but it’s just a different dog in his eyes right now. He knows he is the best, whether people believe it or not, but he feels like he really is the best in the country. And I believe he is.”
Notre Dame’s defense is projected to be strong this fall — certainly better than it was a year ago — with Smith a large part of those high expectations. It says plenty about Smith that he could be the best player from a group that includes Schmidt (last year’s team MVP), Day, Russell, Cole Luke and Max Redfield.
And don’t be surprised if Smith is playing a prominent role on Sundays a year from now. But next year’s NFL Draft isn’t going to be his focus until he finds out if he can push Notre Dame into contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“I’m not worried about next year, the year after that,” Smith said. “I just really want to win a national championship.”