It's just a tad too early for this type of assessment when it comes to Notre Dame freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith, but it's difficult to argue that the former Bishop Luers High School star didn't seem very comfortable on Saturday night playing in an NFL stadium.
Competing in just his sixth collegiate game, Smith paced the Fighting Irish defense in its 37-34 victory over 22nd-ranked Arizona State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“He's got great speed,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “You saw him and his ability to track down (Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly) in the open field. He's a very important player now within our defense.”
Especially considering the Irish are losing defensive players seemingly by the week.
The Irish were already without the services of defensive linemen Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann (both out for the season). Against the Sun Devils, sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day played just one play and missed essentially his third consecutive game.
Sophomore linebacker Ben Councell sat out the first half of Saturday's game due to a head-to-head penalty called on him last week against Oklahoma, and in the second quarter against Arizona State, sophomore linebacker Jarrett Grace, who led the Irish in tackles entering the game, broke his leg and is out for the rest of the season.
Kelly talked on Sunday about moving pieces around to fill the depth holes, but Smith won't be leaving his outside linebacker position anytime soon.
“There are so many different packages that we can discuss in terms of where we can move him,” Kelly explained. “But you know, one of the things we won't do is we will not change his eyes in terms of where he's going to play. He's going to play on the perimeter of our defense, so how he looks at the football game will be outside in, not inside out.”
How Smith is seeing the game unfold is getting to be more impressive each week. He registered nine total tackles against Arizona State, including six solo stops, 1 ½ tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and a pass break up. He played a lot of snaps and was productive through the end, despite being purposefully challenged by the Arizona State offense repeatedly.
“That position is being constantly probed and attacked on a game to game basis. If you've watched film the games, teams are in three and four open against us because they can't run the ball inside, primarily because we have got the best nose guard in the country, so they are attacking Jaylon.
“He learned a lot this week. They ran some play-action boots to his side that we had not seen before, and you know, he's got to learn how to level off on flooding his zones.
“I think the biggest improvement is that he's learning football and how he's being attacked at his position week in and week out.”