SOUTH BEND – Jaylon Smith professes to be “same (person) right now,” but the Notre Dame freshman linebacker also was quick to add, “but stay tuned.”
The former Bishop Luers High School standout may be the same person he was three months ago when he left the only home that he has ever known and enrolled as a student-athlete at one of the most prestigious universities in the country. But he's in a totally different world despite being just a couple of hours from Fort Wayne, so he is already in the process of evolving into a more diverse and educated individual. That's the purpose of college.
“It's definitely different,” Smith said of his life now. “Being in Fort Wayne my whole life, (college) is really something that I've had to adjust to.”
Which he is doing just fine.
Smith has made a relatively smooth transition from high school to college on the football field. His speed, power (he's bulked up to 233 pounds, which is about 15 pounds heavier than he played for the Knights a year ago) and athleticism are apparent as he covers pass-catchers on one play and takes on bruising running backs the next.
When Fighting Irish senior Danny Spond was forced into retirement during training camp due to injury, coach Brian Kelly tabbed Smith to start the opening game against Temple, making him the first outside linebacker at Notre Dame to do so since Kory Minor in 1995.
“It's really just been a blessing,” Smith said of the opportunity. “I've just come in every day and worked and learned from Danny. He's taught me the ins and outs and improved my game.”
The adjustment on the football field came naturally, not easily. Smith is also adapting to the rigors of being a full-time student at a very challenging institution.
He is taking five classes, and for the cynics who believe college football players are coddled in the classroom, that may be the case within some programs, but not at Notre Dame.
There is no underwater basket weaving class in Smith's courseload, which includes classes in anthropology, microeconomics, theology and a history seminar. Oh, and just for good measure, he also is enrolled in a calculus course.
“It has been very difficult, honestly,” Smith said of the classroom workload. “But we do get a lot of help and everyone is willing to help us achieve greatness in the classroom.”
Smith formed close relationships with the other freshmen football players even before enrolling in school. They formed “a bond” during the recruiting process and that has made the transition socially to a new environment easier to manage. He credited his experience at Bishop Luers with aiding in his transition to a Catholic university.
He has stepped out of the gridiron environment socially and hangs with Cutter Jones, who isn't a superhero, as his name might indicate, but Smith's non-athlete roommate from San Francisco.
A university policy is to place the athletes among the student body as freshmen instead of sheltering them from the rest of the university, and Smith loves that.
“It was very easy adjusting,” Smith said of meeting his new roommate. “Everyone is real friendly here. I love the fact that Notre Dame has it set up so that we can room with a regular student.”
Since he arrived on campus in June, Smith has had to learn the art of time management, more so than expanding his comfort zone and say, visiting an art exhibit, drama production or political presentation. But he is obviously embracing this new world – all aspects of it – by the clear signs that has already grown physically, emotionally, culturally, socially and mentally in such a short time.
“I have a long way to go,” Smith said. “But I think that I'm on the right track.”
That is as easy to assess as his athletic ability.