ANGOLA, Ind. - A year ago Jaylon Smith started to emerge as arguably the most important recruit of the Brian Kelly era. Now the five-star linebacker might be the program's biggest commitment.
Not often does an elite defensive prospect pop up within a two-hour drive of campus. The Irish coaching staff identified Smith last summer and extended an offer at the beginning of his junior year.
Notre Dame hosted Smith last season during the USC weekend. Kelly attended one of Smith's basketball games at Bishop Luers. Smith visited the Irish each of the past three months and is slated to return on June 14. This time the five-star linebacker will be an Irish commitment.
Smith brought his recruitment to a close Saturday, pledging to Notre Dame during the R.A.S. Football Camp at Trine University outside his hometown of Fort Wayne. Smith chose the Irish over Ohio State and USC.
"Honestly, it was really just so close to home," Smith said about the factors that sold him on the Irish. "It's about an hour and 40 minutes away. Every athlete wants to stay close to their mother. That really played a big part. And just opportunity. I really don't have any fear of any athlete. I think I can play wherever I chose to ... I believe they have three starting linebackers leaving my incoming year. So it's just a great opportunity just to get this over with."
Irish Illustrated attended the event along with multiple college coaches, including Irish assistant Mike Elston.
Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Purdue, Tennessee and Texas A&M were the other programs to offer.
Smith visited Notre Dame several times starting last summer during a 7-on-7 tournament. Most recently he returned with his father for one of a few spring visits to South Bend.
Back when Notre Dame offered, Smith had an idea of how hard they would make pursuit. Defensive line coach and Indiana recruiter Mike Elston drove the point home last fall.
"He said like other schools they were going to concentrate on me," Smith told IrishIllustrated.com in September. "They did their research and evaluated me and found out my academics were high and good. On the field and off the field everything was (good) so they gave me an offer."?
Rivals.com rates Smith the top outside linebacker in the country and No. 4 prospect overall in the latest Rivals100. Only defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, inside linebacker Reuben Foster and cornerback Kendall Fuller rate higher.
Notre Dame now counts 13 commitments total, Smith being its only five-star pledge.
Kelly has signed at least one five-star prospect in each of his full recruiting classes. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt and outside linebacker Ishaq Williams earned five stars in the Class of 2011 while quarterback Gunner Kiel had such accolades last recruiting cycle.
Smith ranks as the second-highest rated prospect to commit to Notre Dame during the Rivals.com era, dating back to the 2002 recruiting class. Only No. 1 overall prospect Jimmy Clausen rated above Smith.