Notre Dame football fans just watched a career of one great linebacker (All-American Manti Te'o) culminate last month. Now the Irish Nation possibly gets to watch another originate, as Jaylon Smith leaves the halls of Bishop Luers High School later this spring and begins his career in South Bend.
“I'll have a great impact,” Smith said recently. “Whatever role they have for me, I'll be ready for it.”
That attitude isn't viewed by Notre Dame coach as arrogance. Kelly sees it as extreme confidence. And he loves it.
“They're not elite players if they're afraid of competition,” Kelly said.
Smith - by anyone's evaluation – definitely falls under the description of “elite.”
After leading the Knights to four consecutive IHSAA Class 2A state championships, Smith became the first Fort Wayne player to receive the Indiana Mr. Football Award. How will that translate on the field come August?
“You know, one thing that we do a very good job of is that we play a lot of guys,” Kelly explained. “We don't just say there are 11 guys. As you saw this year, we played a lot of guys.
“But I will tell you this; we're also going to put the best 11 on the field. And if (senior) Danny Spond is the best 11, he's playing. If Jaylon Smith is the best 11, he's playing. We recognize the fact that everybody has a value to what we're doing, but we're also going to play the best players.”
Spond overcame an injury in training camp to play very well at the drop (outside) linebacker slot last season. However, he has the ability to also move inside and replace Te'o. which would allow Smith to compete with returning players Romeo Okwara and Ben Councell.
“By and large, we've made the case in recruiting where we see you, and we're honest with them,” Kelly said. “Here's where we see you're at and this is where you're going to be, and if you do this, you're going to get your playing time.”
There are a lot of traits to Smith that Kelly and his coaching staff is enthralled with. Smith brings speed and athleticism to the position, which made him the seventh-highest rated recruit – regardless of position – in the country.
“We could list all of these things, but the thing that's most impressive is the character of this young man and his energy,” Kelly said. “He just has it. When he walks into a room, the room kind of lightens up, and that's the kind of personality that he is, and he is one tough football player, as well. He's got all the things that you're looking for, that quickness, that ability to strike. He can play any position really.”
As impressed as the Notre Dame coaching staff was with Smith on the field, however, that is how much they grew to enjoy what he does off of the field, as well.
“Leadership takes different forms,” Kelly said. “Jaylon can be a leader just by his own actions, the way he handles himself. He'll look you in the eye. I think those are all leadership qualities, as well.
“Do I think he's going to come in and be the vocal leader like Manti was on the field? No, I don't think so. But his actions and the way that he prepares himself and the way he plays the game, I think a lot of people will want to model after him.”
Smith is lighter in weight than the current Irish linebackers. Spond weighed 248 pounds last year, while Okwara was the lightest in the group at 239.
At Luers, Smith played just over 210 pounds and has spent this winter training to increase his mass.
He made it clear that he envisions success for himself at Notre Dame, and that means getting on the field quickly. And Kelly was just as definitive in his belief that Smith will be a significant part of what happens in South Bend over the coming autumns.
“I see great things for Jaylon Smith,” Kelly said.