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September 26, 2013

On the path to greatness

For most budding young football stars, it’s about making the transition physically to the next level where everything moves a bit faster and everyone hits a tad harder.

High school All-American Jaylon Smith - a freshman outside linebacker for the Irish who has been in the starting lineup since the start of the 2013 season -- is no different.

“We didn’t have to deal with the speed and the physical power of the offensive linemen,” said the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder of his days back at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers High School, where Smith was an integral part of four straight 2A state titles. “I wasn’t going against 300-pound linemen every week in high school.”

He is now, of course, along with multiple offensive formations and attacks, and game-planning complexities that weren’t nearly as prevalent on the prep level as they are against the Michigans, Purdues and Michigan States of the college football world.

But Smith admits to being a sponge when it comes to gathering information, and if he continues using his speed, athleticism and improving strength to deal with those 300-pound offensive linemen and 4.4 skill position players, he should be just fine.

He’s soaking up all the knowledge that’s available to him. In addition to Bob Diaco and the defensive coaching staff, Smith clings to the tidbits of wisdom that have been offered, starting with the man who he replaced in the starting lineup.

“Danny (Spond) has been wonderful,” Smith said. “He mastered the position I’m playing and he’s given me great advice. I really appreciate him being around and learning from him every day. My first thoughts were to pray for Danny and just hope that he’d be safe.

“(Prince Shembo) is my on-the-field guy. He’s been helping me to improve my game by becoming more physical. I played running back in high school. So it was a different environment focusing strictly on defense, and I’ve adjusted pretty well.”

Smith also listened intently when he had a chance to speak with former Irish All-American Manti Te’o. The lesson learned had nothing to do with football.

“Take advantage of the classroom, the opportunity,” said Smith of Te’o’s message.

In fact, the adaptation on the football field has been less of a burden to Smith than life as a college student.

“I wouldn’t say it’s on the field,” said Smith of his greatest adjustment. “It’s really just time management off the field. As a college student-athlete, there are a lot of things going on and you really have to stay focused.”

Smith has been a constant in the Irish lineup at the Dog linebacker position, where he’s sharing but still logging a majority of the time over junior Ben Councell. He has 11 tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass broken up.

He committed to the Irish early in the recruiting process, began assimilating to the Notre Dame environment throughout his senior season at Bishop Luers, and came into pre-season camp as prepared as a prep talent could be stepping up on to the big stage.

“I knew all the fight songs and things like that after going to every home game last year,” said Smith of his first home-game experience as a player in the season-opener against Temple. “I was just really anticipating everything and it was fun.”

As for the tricky Dog position, the adjustment is as much mental as physical.

“The speed of the game is something that every freshman has to pick up on,” Smith said. “I definitely excel there. I obviously have a long way before I reach my full potential. But just being able to cover and to attack the run is something that the Dog position requires. I think I’ve done fairly well.”

Smith knows the physical part of the game will begin to turn in his favor once he gets beyond his rookie season and can fully develop within the system.

“I’m 230 pounds, so I haven’t had that full season in the weight room to be able to get that strength,” Smith said. “I’ll probably gain about five pounds. I love my speed and I want to keep my form. That’s something I don’t want to lose.”

Smith appears to be well adjusted to “the life” of a major college football player. He’s not in a hurry, not going to skip any steps along the way. Following Te’o’s advice even further, Smith is absorbing it all, learning and adapting and enjoying the process.

“I have a long way to go, but I think I’m on the right track,” Smith said. “I’m really just worried about tomorrow, just getting out on the field and continuing to stay healthy.

“It’s a 12- or 13-week season, which is something I’ve been quite used to with winning four state championships. But it’s a different level. You have to go hard every play here.”

You also have to stop and smell the roses - or is that the mums in Notre Dame Stadium? - as Smith dives headlong into the journey ahead.

“Just tapping that sign,” smiled Smith of the famous phrase attached to the exit wall of the Notre Dame Stadium locker room. “It just lets me know and reminds everyone to play like a champion today.

“I’m really just honored to have that privilege. I definitely made the correct decision.”

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