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Notre Dame freshman linebacker ventures into rare territory

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For more on college football, follow Tom Davis via Twitter at www.twitter.com/Tom101010.

Luers grad will start for Irish from Day One

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - 12:01 am

SOUTH BEND – Jaylon Smith is unusual in many various ways.

Sure, most football fans can watch the Notre Dame freshman linebacker and see how he stands out among his peers on the football field.

But those in the Fighting Irish program can tell you how the former Bishop Luers High School standout is a rare breed off the field.

“When (Jaylon) came in during the summer,” Notre Dame fifth-year middle linebacker Dan Fox said, “he was asking me if I wanted to watch some film. So we get in the film room and he's saying some things that took me a little while to pick up on and he knew it right away. So I was impressed with his knowledge of the game.”

He wasn't the only person who noticed Smith's football intellect.

“Jaylon is a very smart player,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “He plays instinctively. The one thing that Jaylon has done as well as a lot of freshmen that I've been around is that he doesn't make the same mistake twice. That is a hallmark of a guy that is going to play a lot of football for us.”

It takes much more than pure athleticism to get on the field for the 11th-ranked Irish, though Smith certainly brings that to the table. But if running fast and hitting hard were the lone prerequisites, then Notre Dame would be starting 72 players in Saturday's opener against Temple (3:30 p.m., NBC) in South Bend.

It takes intelligence, passion, discipline, motivation and much more – coupled with athleticism – to do what Smith is going to do, which is become the first true freshman to start at outside linebacker for the Irish in the season opener in 18 seasons (Kory Minor was the last to do so in 1995). He was elevated to the top spot in the rotation after senior Danny Spond was forced to retire from football because of medical issues, and Smith beat out sophomore Ben Councell in training camp.

But reaching this point was far from easy for Smith according to his coach.

“He had to work for this,” Kelly said. “It was Danny Spond, it was Ben Councell and it was Jaylon Smith (at the position). It didn't start the other way around. He was No. 3 on the depth chart when they ran out there.”

Some will compare Smith to former Irish great Manti Te'o, a middle linebacker who also started as a true freshman (in 2009). Kelly said that isn't an accurate assessment.

“Jaylon's at a different position,” Kelly said. “Manti was in a four-down defense and Jaylon is playing on the edge of the defense and is being asked to do a lot of different things. That probably isn't a fair comparison other than they are both great freshman players.

“Jaylon is asked to do a different job. He plays so well in space.”

Another rare trait that Smith has demonstrated not just in South Bend but also growing up in Fort Wayne is being grounded amid all of the hoopla of his daily life.

Last year, he was a high school All-American being courted by every major college program in the country, yet he was disciplined enough to hold a part-time job at Burger King to earn spending money.

That level of humbleness and work ethic has carried over to Notre Dame.

“He went out and did his job,” Kelly said of Smith's training camp work. “Jaylon comes from a good family (and) he comes from a great program (Bishop Luers), where they obviously did a great job of teaching him. He's been great and he's put himself in position to do some great things.”