LB Smith is on move as leader of No. 6 Notre Dame’s defense
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith is hard to keep track of.
Sometimes he lines up at weakside linebacker and rushes the passer. Other times, he lines up in the same spot and drops back in coverage. He also slides out to play strongside linebacker. Then there are those plays where he lines up at defensive end. Sometimes on the right side, sometimes on the left.
”He can line up with his hand on the ground. He can cover the inside receiver. He can play in the box. He can tackle in open space. There’s not much he can’t do,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. ”He’s a rare, rare defensive player. It’s just fun watching him play.”
Smith said it doesn’t matter where he lines up, his favorite thing is getting after the quarterback.
”That’s something I love doing,” he said.
Kelly was asked where Smith ranks in terms of players he’s coached.
”Short answer, I haven’t coached a player like him before, period,” he said.
That is high praise considering Kelly coached linebacker Manti Te’o, who won seven national awards his senior season and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Kelly said the thing that makes Smith special is his versatility.
”Manti had a way of influencing the entire defense. He just had a savvy and a smart presence about him, like a Joe Schmidt, but certainly an athleticism about him as well. Not to the level of Jaylon,” Kelly said. ”So I think they impact differently. I think Jaylon impacts more physically than Manti did.”
Four games in, as the sixth-ranked Fighting Irish (4-0) prepare for its visit to No. 12 Clemson (3-0) on Saturday, the 6-foot-2, 243-pound junior from Fort Wayne doesn’t have quite the numbers Te’o had four games into his senior season in 2012. Te’o had 16 unassisted tackles and 38 tackles overall with no sacks, two tackles for loss, three interceptions, two passes broken up and two fumble recoveries. Smith has 20 unassisted tackles, 29 overall with one sack and 4.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up and one fumble recovery.
Smith, a second-team All-American last season who was a high school senior in 2012, said Te’o is like a brother.
”So looking up to your brother you always want to be better than him,” Smith said. ”But it’s a family here. At the end of the day, if you don’t win, it doesn’t matter how great you are. The legacy at Notre Dame is how great can you be as a whole. It’s not about the one.”
The Irish defense has looked solid, although it has given up big plays. The Irish rank 41st in the nation in total defense, giving up 341.5 yards a game – second best for the unit in six seasons under Kelly. The best was in 2012, when the Te’o-led defense held opponents to 305.5 yards a game and ranked seventh in the nation.
One of five Irish captains, Smith said the thing he’s working on most is trying to help others around him play better by raising expectations. Kelly believes where Smith can most improve is in pass coverage.
”But I think we’re splitting hairs. He’s generally in really good position in most pass coverages,” he said.
Smith will have a decision to make after the season about whether to skip his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. He said he’s not thinking about that now.
”I’m focused on one thing, and that’s a national championship. That’s really my only focus right now,” he said.