All Over the Field: Jaylon Smith
Brian Hartnett | Thursday, October 2, 2014
It’s not hard to notice Irish sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith on the field.
The 235-pound outside linebacker can be found all over the gridiron.
He might be 30 yards downfield covering a receiver, as he was on Syracuse’s first play from scrimmage in Notre Dame’s 31-15 win last weekend.
He might be tackling a ball carrier on the perimeter of the field, something he has done often, as evidenced by his team-leading 31 tackles.
He might even be disrupting the quarterback and running back in the backfield, as has been the case on his four tackles for loss, another team-leading statistic.
And he’s done it all with a speed and fluidity unusual for a position that traditionally has emphasized power and strength.
“He’s a cheetah,” senior linebacker Joe Schmidt said of Smith. “He is a lion on the hunt. … He’s just got a natural knack.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever watched him blitz, but he’ll jump over somebody and then dive under another guy and be on his feet still. … Or he’ll drop to the ground and literally have his shoulder touching the ground as he’s rushing. It’s like you can’t block it.”
Smith avoided animal comparisons, but he said he’s taken advantage of opportunities to show off his speed.
“I’ve been blessed with the ability to run, so having that trait is always good,” he said. “You really want to maintain it.”
If anything, however, this season has offered Smith the chance to slow down. He’s no longer the only freshman starter on the defense, and he’s no longer a new student in both the film room and the classroom.
“Probably the biggest difference is you’ve pretty much adjusted to the classroom,” Smith said of being a sophomore. “Your head isn’t spinning each and every day, transitioning from class — a student — to football — an athlete. Your comfort level is better.”
Instead, Smith enters Saturday’s game with the third-most career starts of any player on the defense, trailing only withheld junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell and senior cornerback Matthias Farley. He’s tied with junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley for the most consecutive starts on the team at 17.
Smith received a host of preseason accolades. He landed on the watch lists for the Bednarik Award, presented annually to the top collegiate defensive player, and the Butkus Award, presented to the best college linebacker.
It’s all to be expected for a player who totaled 61 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and an interception in his freshman campaign. But Smith said he doesn’t feel any additional pressure to live up to his past success.
“I mean, throughout my whole life, I’ve always been under pressure, in the moment essentially,” Smith said. “… It doesn’t really matter to me. It’s all about execution, and it’s all about the team. As long as we’re winning and the team is together, I’m happy.”
With more than a full season under his belt, Smith has become a stabilizing veteran presence on a young Notre Dame defense that has featured eight freshmen thus far.
Smith said he’s content in his new role of dispensing, rather than taking, advice.
“[I’ve helped] moreso on the field, but off the field as well, just being a big brother to [the freshmen],” he said. “Even though I’m only a year older than them — some of them are older than me — it’s fun really just having each other’s back.”
Smith said he’s developed close bonds with freshman safety Drue Tranquill, who shares Smith’s hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the freshman linebacker duo of Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.
“The whole linebacking corps is just making sure [the freshmen] are on top of their schoolwork and making sure their attendance is great, and they’re coming to things on time,” he said.
Junior defensive lineman Sheldon Day said the first-year Irish players haven’t hesitated to reach out to Smith.
“… He knows everything, and Jaylon, he’s so committed to everything he does, so people look up to him and trust in him,” Day said.
Smith has helped fellow sophomore James Onwualu acclimate to the linebacker position. Onwualu spent time at receiver and safety before he converted to linebacker and ultimately won a starting job in the offseason.
“He asks me questions each and every day, and it’s my job to make sure he’s executing,” Smith said of Onwualu. “Any questions he has, he comes to me, obviously because I’ve been there and things like that. He’s going to be a great player for us.”
That’s not to say Smith isn’t still learning the game himself. He said he’s picked up much from playing alongside Schmidt, the team’s starter in the middle.
“[I’ve learned from] the great knowledge he has, the understanding of concepts, the understanding of the game, things like that,” he said of Schmidt. “Just little nuances like that are huge for me in developing my game.”
Smith had the opportunity to learn from one of the team’s newcomers, first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Smith said VanGorder’s enthusiasm for the game has transferred to the defense’s style of play.
“It’s just about building our culture, and [VanGorder] lives it each and every day,” Smith said. “If you have a great coach like that, it’s very fun to play for him, and you’re just constantly trying to get better. He’s also trying to get better himself.”
VanGorder’s new defensive scheme, a 4-3 look with an emphasis on aggressiveness, has opened up opportunities for blitzing, Smith said. Smith’s early numbers are in part effects of this scheme — in addition to his four tackles for loss, he also sacked Purdue sophomore quarterback Danny Etling for a 13-yard loss in Notre Dame’s 30-14 win over the Boilermakers on Sept. 13.
“The whole defense is more aggressive, way more aggressive, so it makes it fun,” Smith said.
Smith and the Irish defense rank fourth nationally in scoring defense and have allowed slightly over 11 points per game. The Irish will face No. 14 Stanford on Saturday in a game that will test the unit’s development, Smith said.
“It’s ongoing every week,” he said. “It’s all about the process, not making the same mistake twice and things like that. Stanford’s going to be a great game, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Although most linebackers would relish the opportunity to face the Cardinal’s physical offensive line and power running game, Smith said the opponent’s style has little effect on the way he plays the game.
“I’m just blessed and thankful to be able to play this game, so it doesn’t really matter to me,” he said. “I just like playing.”
And if past trends are any indication, Smith will be all over the field Saturday, playing the game the only way he knows how to play it — fast.