ANGOLA – Jaylon Smith's big deal is really only one small step.
I'm sure officially picking Notre Dame and saying no to the other 23 full-ride college football scholarships on his table brings some sense of relief to the Bishop Luers senior-to-be. It is an immediate big deal not only for Smith, but to Notre Dame, which pulls in a linebacker ranked by recruiting services as one of the best in the nation.
Here's why it's a small step in the broader sense: He has to take that scholarship and make it count.
First, Smith has to finish strong at Bishop Luers, pushing himself academically as well as athletically. It can be tough to stay grounded with so much focus on the next level, not to mention so many people telling you how great you are.
Then, he has to arrive on campus at Notre Dame in the fall of 2013 and start over. There are no promises at the college level, no matter how highly recruited a player is in high school. Competition awaits. He has the world on a string now. Plenty of people will be grabbing scissors, trying to cut that string.
Ultimately, we're five years from finding out if Smith will reach the NFL or claim a great consolation prize in a degree from a prestigious university.
“You have to take football out of the picture,” Smith said in announcing his decision Saturday after the R.A.S. Football Camp at Trine University. “I'm going there because of the academics. It's something you can't turn down.”
I believe I get what he's trying to say: Academics sets Notre Dame apart from some other football factories.
There's no taking football out of the picture. Smith talents as a football player have put him in this position, and those talents are ample. He's fast, he's strong and he could probably play on either side of the football. Linebacker might be his love, but he rushed for over 1,300 yards last season and could top that this coming fall as a Luers senior.
“I honestly believe I'm the No.1 player in the country,” he said.
Did I mention he's confident?
He'll need to be prepared mentally for the pressure at Notre Dame. Smith says, as do all Notre Dame recruits, that he hopes to return the Fighting Irish to their glory days level – competing for a national championship. They haven't done so to any legitimate degree since Lou Holtz was coach. Holtz was on his way out when Smith was born.
Now, if Smith could help return Notre Dame to true glory – and he plans to push for other to uncommitted players to join him in campus – it would mean more for Notre Dame than any other school in the country. Smith mentioned turning down USC, Oregon and defending national champion Alabama. They like their football in each of those locales. None of those would be as huge a story in taking a national title as Notre Dame would be.
Smith talked of wanting to play close to home, of wanting to be at a school where African American athletes have a great graduation rate (“99 percent,” he said) and he emphasized that he prayed about the decision before he made it. He credited his family and mentors, such as AWP's Michael Ledo, with helping him navigate the recruiting terrain.
It appears Notre Dame had him at first invite.
“I visited Notre Dame March 3 and from there I knew I was going there,” Smith said. “It was just a matter of making sure that wasn't a mistake. …I went back to Notre Dame and I was sure.”
Now his phone can stop “blowing up.” The stress of being constantly pursued is gone. He hopes he won't have to keep adding to the “2,000 letters in a box. I'm glad it's about to end somewhat.”
Smith mentioned that he feels character sets him apart, not long after a fiery motivational talk from Eric Thomas, “The Hip Hop Preacher,” that touched on the need for that very facet in young athletes' makeup.
Smith will require continued solid character as he makes the move from college recruit to college player to, perhaps, NFL player. There's nothing easy about the road ahead.
Smith should be congratulated on his scholarship offer and his decision. He's still a ways away from the real task: Making that great opportunity count for him and for Notre Dame.