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Hello, My Name is Jaylon

Jack Hefferon | Wednesday, October 30, 2013

It can be hard to remember that Jaylon Smith is just a freshman.

He has come in as a rookie and made an immediate impact at outside linebacker, starting every game. He’s picked up the schemes and packages, forced and recovered fumbles and intercepted passes. He’s even savvy in the media room, answering questions with the poise of a fifth-year senior.

Nothing about Smith gives off the vibe that he’s new at this, that is, until someone points out his sweatpants. The No. 11 on the thigh is a giveaway that they belong to junior linebacker Ishaq Williams, and his shirt belongs to senior linebacker Prince Shembo.

“I don’t have much gear yet,” Smith said, sheepish for the first time in the interview. “I am still a freshman.”

The reminder is helpful. Still, Smith is no ordinary freshman, as Irish coach Brian Kelly will be the first to tell you.

“We don’t believe that [freshmen] are going to come in and be All-Americans, but they’re going to be contributors,” Kelly said. “I think if you look at the freshmen, the one guy that’s been more than a contributor is Jaylon Smith, obviously … if there’s one freshman that has really impacted our football team, I think you’d have to point to Jaylon.”

So far Smith’s play has lived up to the hype, which is impressive considering just how much has surrounded him. Smith won four straight state championships at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., and was unanimously rated as a five-star recruit.

Smith didn’t grow up watching college football, and his only loyalties lied with Ohio State, where his older brother Rod is a junior running back. Still, Notre Dame was able to secure Smith’s commitment at the end of his junior year, which was seen by many as one of Kelly’s biggest recruiting hauls. After his commitment Smith immediately went to work for the Irish, reaching out through phone calls and Twitter to try to recruit other top members of his class to join what he coined the “Irish Mob.”

“At that point, there was no other school I had interest in,” Smith said. “So I committed, and started to rally the mob.”

His zeal for the program continued when he reached campus this summer, receiving praise throughout the preseason as he earned reps over more experienced teammates.

“I just wanted to contribute anyway I could,” he said. “You’re a little behind, because you don’t know the playbook as much, but you just have to go out and compete every day, and that’s what I wanted to do.”

The results were apparent to everyone around him, including junior safety Matthias Farley, who said Smith’s transition to the college ranks has been one of the quickest he has seen.

“I don’t think at any point he was playing like a freshman, but at the beginning of the year he might not have reacted as fast even though he knew what to do, just because of hesitation,” Farley said. “There’s definitely none of that now. He sees it and he goes, and he’s playing phenomenally well.”

Smith started from the season opener, but his biggest test came in his sixth game, the Shamrock Series matchup with then-No. 24 Arizona State in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Sun Devils chose to isolate the young freshman, betting on the matchup as one that they could win. Smith was thrown into the spotlight in front of a nationwide, primetime audience – and responded with a career-high and team-leading nine tackles to help Notre Dame secure the win.

“The Arizona State game, there were a lot of times where I had to just ‘shoot my gun’ and make the play,” Smith said. “I really had to get out of my comfort zone, and just play football.”

Since then, Smith’s play has looked even more veteran. In a long-awaited matchup with archrival USC on Oct. 19, Smith stonewalled the Trojans only three plays into the second half by picking off a Trojan pass for his first career interception.

Smith was a linchpin for the Irish defense once again last week, as Notre Dame traveled up into the mountains to face Air Force and its triple option. .

In the third quarter, Smith pulled what may have been his most veteran move yet. When a teammate forced the ball loose, he picked it up as whistles blew and ran all of 60 yards to the end zone, then turned to the officials and raised his arms to signal a touchdown, holding the pose for the better part of a minute. Eventually, his unsuccessful appeal netted him only a fumble recovery, not the touchdown.

“I thought the play was still alive, so I continued to run,” he said. “… Unfortunately they didn’t call it a touchdown, but hopefully I’ll get another opportunity at that.”

That opportunity may come this weekend against Navy, another triple-option team that will force Smith to get physical and fight in the trenches. In such times it helps to get mean, but Smith is naturally handicapped in that regard, recognized by many as one of the nicest kids on the team.

“It’s football. Playing on the defensive side, you have to have that nastiness,” he said. “You don’t have to make it a lifestyle, though.”

Smith is just starting off his whirlwind college career, but knows it can go just as fast. In the meantime, he’s working his hardest to make every day count, and not let any distractions get in the way.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “It’s a blessing, and you really have to cherish it, and not take a day of it for granted … We’re not looking forward at anything down the path, we’re just looking forward to the next game and the next play.”

Another veteran answer from the rookie.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu