NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As good as sophomore inside linebacker Jaylon Smith has been for the Irish during his freshman season at outside linebacker and sophomore campaign at Will linebacker, Brian Kelly is looking forward to next year when Smith can settle in at the same position for the second straight year.
"This year has been a learning experience for him," said Kelly of the 6-foot-2 ½, 235-pounder, who paces the Irish in tackles (103), solo tackles (60), assisted tackles (43) and tackles for loss (8 ½).
"We see him now as a leader. He's now going to be able to handle his position, but also make others around him better. He's going to not only take care of his position, but he's going to be a leader on our football team."
Smith was thrust into the starting lineup on the outside as a true freshman and has started all 25 games Notre Dame has played since the 2013 season-opener against Temple.
In two seasons -- minus today's Music City Bowl against LSU, which will add to his totals -- Smith has 170 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception, six passes defensed, two fumbles forced and a fumble recovery.
The transition from outside to inside linebacker has been a significant one, particularly without Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt directing traffic since the second half of the eighth game of the season against Navy when Schmidt went down with a season-ending ankle injury.
"He's certainly physically one of the better players that I've coached in my career, and I think his best football is in front of him," Kelly said. "We moved him inside this year, which is a big step for a guy that's played outside linebacker. You're seeing the game totally different.
"It's great when you're best player is also one of your best leaders, and now he'll be in a position to lead next year whereas he's so focused this year on himself."
MAKING THE CALL ON ZAIRE
Kelly was asked Monday how the team reacted to his decision to start Malik Zaire against LSU over Everett Golson, who started all 12 regular-season games and has 23 in his career.
"It's a limited democracy," Kelly said. "There are some things where they're going to roll with the head coach. They have trust (and) confidence in my decision that I'm going to put the best guys out there."
Kelly was more concerned with the chemistry between Zaire and the rest of the offense during the last three-to-four weeks of preparation.
"We practiced them both quite a bit with the first group," Kelly said. "The most important thing was just to make sure that (our) verbal cadence and operation were seamless."
Monday night, ESPN declared in a headline, "Golson benched," which is not exactly accurate. At one point, Kelly referred to the Zaire-Golson pairing as dual starters for the LSU game.
"Both of them will play," Kelly said. "How that unfolds will have a lot to do with their success. I don't think this is going to be a scripted one-series-here, one-series-there. We're going to have to get a feel for the flow of the game."
Kelly said his focus in making the quarterback decision is strictly on what happens on the field on Dec. 30, 2014.
"Tomorrow is about 2014; it's not about 2015," said Kelly almost exactly 24 hours before kickoff. "Our focus is on winning tomorrow's football game. We think that playing both of them gives us the best chance to win tomorrow.
"We'll figure out 2015 in January. This is really about both of these guys giving us the best opportunity to win."
NO CHANGES TO STAFF?
It should be taken with a grain of salt when Kelly said Monday that the 2014 coaching staff would be the 2015 staff as well. He said similar things following the 2011 season after offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Charley Molnar took the head-coaching job at Massachusetts, and before offensive line coach Ed Warinner and running backs coach Tim Hinton moved on to Ohio State.
"We're always hoping that if the right situation presents a leadership position for any of our assistants, we're going to be great advocates," said Kelly, "but nothing has presented itself at this time."
Irish running backs coach Tony Alford interviewed for the head-coaching position at Colorado State - his alma mater - but the job went to Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
It's been a topic since the day after the conference championship games when the bowl pairings were announced.
LSU's big, physical lines present a challenge for the Irish without 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pound Jarron Jones at nose tackle and with three-technique Sheldon Day returning from a knee injury suffered in the 10th game of the season against Northwestern.
"Offensive line, defensive line, they present that physical toughness,' said Kelly of LSU.
Asked to make a comparison to the most physical team on the 2014 regular-season slate, Kelly looked to the West Coast.
"I'd say Stanford probably mirrors (LSU) in a lot of ways defensively with the physical play that you'll see from LSU," Kelly said. "Certainly more skill for LSU on the perimeter and at the running back position."
Kelly has said a couple of times since the match-up against the Tigers was announced that he and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock have to devise an offensive game plan against LSU that protects the Irish defense.
"I've got to keep that physical offense that LSU has off the field," Kelly said. "We've got to take our shots. We've got some perimeter guys that have to make plays against some very good cornerbacks for LSU. We have to look at all aspects of this game."
Asked to comment on LSU's rushing attack, that averaged 48.5 rushing attempts and 219.5 yards rushing per game -- which included a 303-yard output against Kentucky and another 384 yards on the ground in the last regular-season game against Texas A&M -- Kelly responded: "Extremely concerning."FORTIFYING THE INSIDE
In addition of the return of Sheldon Day inside and the dual role of Isaac Rochell at end and tackle, Notre Dame is in an "all hands on deck" mode on the interior of the defensive line against LSU.
It's been that way since Day and Jarron Jones were sidelined in November.
That means a liberal sprinkling - when possible - of 6-foot-0 ½, 325-pound freshman Daniel Cage, who is returning from a knee injury suffered in the same game Day was injured (Northwestern), and more undersized interior defensive linemen such as Justin Utupo (6-0 ½, 290), Jay Hayes (6-3, 265) and Jacob Matuska (6-4 ½, 289).
"They'll give us reps for certain, and they've practiced accordingly to the volume we expect to get from them in the game," Kelly said. "They'll be needed to play in this game at some level. They all have handled that kind of volume very well."
BRYANT IN THE MIX BUT…
After rushing for a career-high 79 yards on seven carries against USC, including his third rushing touchdown of the season, red-shirt freshman running back Greg Bryant appeared to put himself in the running for additional carries after toting the football just 12 times in a seven-game span during the middle portion of the season.
Kelly's comments didn't indicate an increased usage of Bryant against LSU.
"I don't know that the role expands as much, (although) he'll definitely be a part of what we're doing," said Kelly of Bryant. "You'll see (Tarean) Folston and Cam (McDaniel) and Greg continue in similar roles. We'll play the guy that seems to be having some success."
Bryant has carried 52 times for 287 yards (5.5-yard average) in 11 games this year. Folston leads the Irish with 816 yards on 154 attempts (5.3) with five rushing touchdowns. McDaniel is fourth on the squad in rushing, behind third-place Everett Golson, with 274 yards on 76 carries (3.6) and four rushing touchdowns.
"(Bryant) played well against USC and if he continues to do that, I can see him getting more carries," Kelly said.
THUMBS UP FROM MILES
The six-year, $48 million deal had yet to be officially announced when LSU head coach Les Miles not only confirmed that San Francisco 49ers head coach and former Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh would indeed be the next coach at Michigan, but endorsed the selection as well.
"I'm very happy that Michigan's selection is a very quality coach," said Miles, a former Michigan offensive lineman and a 1976 graduate. "It's just a matter of time before they return to prominence. Go Blue."