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Working like a ‘dog’

Mike Monaco | Wednesday, September 25, 2013

It’s easy to forget, sometimes, just how green Jaylon Smith is.

But when the freshman outside linebacker walked into the Isban Auditorium in the Guglielmino Athletic Complex on Wednesday evening to face the media for the first time at Notre Dame, there were a few quick reminders of his youth.

Smith, who was ranked by ESPN as the No. 7 overall recruit in the class of 2013, deliberated a few seconds about where to plop down, unsure of where he should go, before he found his seat in the front row. After all, he’s never done this before.

The first question to Smith asked for his prediction for a high school football game in Smith’s hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Youthful reminders aside, Smith has found his place at Notre Dame, on and off the field. The transition to college, and specifically to living with another randomly-assigned freshman, has been seamless. Smith reminded reporters he and his roommate are not ‘kids.’

“We’re young adults now,” Smith said. “It was very easy adjusting. Everyone’s friendly here. I love it.”

Through four games on the field, similarly, the 6-foot-3, 233-pounder has played older than the rookie he is. After senior linebacker Danny Spond retired from football due to hemiplegic migraines in fall training camp, Smith was slotted into the starting “Dog” linebacker position, joining a linebacking rotation that features almost exclusively upperclassmen.

“My first thoughts were just to pray for Danny and just hope that he’d be safe getting back out there,” Smith said.

Spond has stayed with the football program, serving as a de facto assistant coach on the sideline.

“He’s been wonderful,” Smith said. “He’s mastered the position I’m playing and he has given me great advice and I really appreciate just him being around and every day just learning from him even though he’s not playing.”

Senior outside linebacker Prince Shembo, who starts on the opposite as the “Cat” linebacker, has also guided Smith through the first third of his freshman campaign. Shembo and Smith were roommates during the beginning of training camp at the Shiloh Park Retreat and Conference Center in Marion, Ind.

“[Shembo has helped me as an] on-the-field type of guy, helping me improve my game and be more physical,” Smith said.

Smith admitted that, at 233 pounds and with just a few months in a collegiate strength and conditioning program under his belt, he needs to continue to get stronger. But the freshman said he doesn’t envisioning adding loads of weight during his career at Notre Dame. At most, he thinks he’ll put on five pounds, while hopefully still adding strength and maintaining his speed. Smith, who also rushed for 1,265 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior at Bishop Luers High School, possesses a rare blend of size and speed, making him a natural fit at the Dog linebacker spot.

“I think I definitely excel there,” Smith said. “Obviously I have a long way before I reach my full potential but really just being able to cover and attack the run is something that the dog position requires. And I think I’ve done fairly well.”

Smith has racked up 11 tackles thus far but conceded he has made his share of blunders. Some of the most difficult aspects of the transition from Bishop Luers to Notre Dame, Smith said, have been the defensive hand signals and the speed of the game.

“Obviously there have been mistakes and everybody gets mad about those,” he said. “But it’s all about the next play.”

“I think there’s definitely room for improvement,” Smith added. “I’m not satisfied at all.”

Smith’s next chance to show improvement during a game is Saturday, when the Irish square off with Oklahoma at Notre Dame Stadium. Though the Sooners enter South Bend ranked 14th in the nation and despite the scheduled “green-out” of the stadium, Smith is no more excited about Saturday’s contest than any other game. His explanation is fleetingly revealing of his youth.

“Every game is going to be exciting for me,” Smith said. “As a freshman, everything is new. It’s a new experience. I’ve never played in front of 80,000 and 115,000 people. It’s crazy. I’m looking forward to it.”

Suddenly, Smith pauses slightly and his focus shifts, revealing the maturity that, in part, allowed him to become the first freshman outside linebacker to start the season-opener since Kory Minor did so in 1995.

“Like I said, we’re taking it day by day,” Smith said. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow, getting better at practice and really to just do my job every plan. And it will turn out good.”

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu