Of the major changes taking place on, and of, the field for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, moving Jaylon Smith from outside- to inside-linebacker is likely going to be the more meaningful for the team’s success in the 2014 campaign. By taking the five-star sophomore out of his comfort zone, Head Coach Brian Kelly, Defensive Coordinator Brian VanGorder, and Linebackers Coach Bob Elliott are guaranteed to have the comfort of knowing that arguably their most-talented defensive player is on the field as much as possible. And, if Smith improves upon his terrific performances last year, Notre Dame’s opponents will definitely need to game-plan for and play away from Number Nine.
As a freshman, Smith won a starting spot over Ben Councell after Danny Spond fell to migraines. Going on to start all thirteen games, Smith finished as the team’s fourth-highest tackler, with 67 overall and 41 solo. Perhaps his virtuoso moment came against USC when he effortlessly covered hectares of field to nab his first, and only, interception of the season. Thanks to the good folks at FIDM, you can watch it, and the almost hyperbolic reaction, here:
Or, perhaps, his virtuoso moment came on the play that caused Bret Musberger to admonish us all to “remember that name” after Jaylon almost picked off Michigan. You may have missed that because you were still trying to wrap your mind around this virtuoso moment:
Looking ahead to the coming season, simple math tells you that the Irish need all the help they can get on the defensive front and that moving Smith inside makes sense. Missing five of its seven starters from last year, the linebacking corps is particularly thin, with Jarrett Grace out and a walk-on, Joe Schmidt, surprising as a likely starter. While depth should improve with Jarrett’s return and the arrival of incoming freshman Nyles Morgan, the defense that squares off against Rice will come with a heaping portion of Jaylon Smith.
As to how he feels about the move, Smith gives every indication that he’s looking beyond his individual performance and focusing on W’s. “When I committed here, I committed to doing anything that will help the team win,” Smith said. “I’ll stick to that. I’m a team-first player. I’m not worried about myself and what I can do to contribute to the team. I really just want to do whatever it takes to help our team win.” (quote taken from here.)
Smith is a leader, too, having been the hard nucleus about which his recruiting class formed. With his proven ability to lead his peers and his demonstrated elite-level athletic ability, the 2014 season could very well be one in which Jaylon Smith finds himself moving over, and moving up.