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COLUMN

Is Notre Dame recruit in Rod Woodson's league?

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For more sports commentary, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Jaylon Smith follows in footsteps of some great city football talent

Friday, February 8, 2013 - 2:30 pm

The question is premature, yet wholly worth discussing: Could Notre Dame-bound Jaylon Smith become the greatest football player in Fort Wayne history?

I know what you're thinking. Hold on there, Tex (or some less-endearing term).

This is the birthplace of Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, the formative stomping grounds of College Football Hall of Famer Johnny Bright. There's a list of great players, from old-timer favorites such as Emil Sitko (another Domer) and Bob Cowan to modern-day warriors Bernard Pollard and Anthony Spencer. Outgoing Notre Dame standout Tyler Eifert is a probable first-round draft pick in April.

Smith is still a Bishop Luers High School kid for a couple more months.

Valid points, all. With apologies to players before my time such as Bright and Sitko, I still put Woodson far and above any other athlete – let alone football player – to come out of Fort Wayne. Woodson was named The News-Sentinel's No.1 athlete in history in 1999. I see no reason to change that now.

I'm not saying Smith can unseat Woodson. He's not on Pollard's or Spencer's or even Eifert's level yet.

I'm saying he has a chance.

Smith said he looks up to Woodson, Pollard and Spencer – three of the most notable names of Smith's short lifetime.

“I'm just trying to be the next one, that's all,” Smith said, maintaining at least a semblance of humility on national signing day Wednesday when all the college football world was applauding.

Smith has an edge on all those players who came before him because of what he's done so far. None of his predecessors won four straight state football titles. He won the Butkus Award, for the nation's best linebacker. Throw in Indiana's Mr. Football, an honor Woodson might have won if it had been around in his days at Snider.

The level of training available, such as AWP (Athletes With Purpose), gives Smith an edge those before him didn't have. I talked with Spencer last summer and he marveled at the advances – especially in summer-time football opportunities – that weren't around when he was in high school.

Today's high school athletes are blessed in terms of their accessibility to coaching, facilities and nutritional instruction. Smith has the edge there from being born at the right time.

Smith also learned about the pressure of being a star player up close as he watched his brother Rod, now at Ohio State, earn recognition and recruiting attention.

Other than Woodson, I don't know that I've seen an athlete with such a combination of power and speed that Jaylon Smith possesses. Add to that the fact he's a bright young man, perceptive and intelligent both in academics and common sense.

“It's just about trying to be successful, trying to put Fort Wayne on the map again,” he said. “I think I've done that as far as living up to high expectations. I look forward to the opportunity and getting on that practice field and getting better and better trying to find ways to develop my game.”

Woodson proved his extraordinary athletic abilities first at Purdue, then in an international track setting, then in the NFL where he became one of the greatest defensive backs in history. He tore up his knee. He returned to greatness. He switched positions. He returned to greatness.

It would take someone special to match, let alone top, Woodson. Yet Smith has the chance.

It's a long shot, no question. The road to Woodson's level narrows year after year and no one from Fort Wayne has finished the journey yet.

There have been some great football players from Fort Wayne who plateaued in college. Vaughn Dunbar was a terrific back at Snider and Indiana University (he was sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior), but his NFL career never really took over. No shame in that. That's how it goes sometimes.

Smith has accomplished more than any other Fort Wayne player, Woodson included, at the high school level.

It takes more than that to be the greatest. It'll take him four years at excelling at Notre Dame, at making the linebacker spot his in a way that puts him in the middle of college football's national picture. You have to go beyond that to reach Spencer's and Pollard's level.

Spencer and Pollard were solid college players. They've become outstanding pro players. Pollard just played a huge stretch of the schedule with broken ribs. Who knew the "bonecrusher" was crushing his own? What supreme toughness to keep pushing.

Smith can't be the best ever until he hits some adversity and comes out even stronger. For all of his experiences in high school, he hasn't had many snags yet. He never lost a postseason game. He won every award there is to win. He's Notre Dame's prize recruit.

The football world sits in front of Smith, his for the taking.

He says his Fort Wayne predecessors' success inspires him. We're not the biggest city, but we've produced some elite football talent.

“Just seeing what they've done, I think to myself what can I do to better myself and carry on that tradition,” Smith said. “We're all a family here. I'm looking forward to getting out there and producing.”

Smith can't claim to be Fort Wayne's finest yet, not with the list of players ahead of him. But the question of whether he could become the best is a viable one.

And that's an impressive spot to be in today, with his future wide, wide open.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com