Skilled, athletic linebacker sets tone for Irish, keeps playoff hopes on track

- Nicole Auerbach @NicoleAuer­bach USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND, IND. Jaylon Smith is many things.

He’s the linchpin in Notre Dame’s defense. He’s perhaps the best linebacker in college football. And he is an athletic marvel.

“It’s like playing with LeBron James,” Notre Dame quarterbac­k Malik Zaire said in the preseason. “He just is better than a lot of the athletes he’s around. ... He just makes plays where it’s like, that’s just Jaylon.”

At the time he said that, Zaire was just wrapping up fall camp, and his outlook on his first season as the starter was bright: He’d lead the offense, Smith would anchor the defense and Notre Dame would be a national title contender

ow, three weeks into the season, the plan is in a bit of disarray. Zaire is sidelined for the season with a broken ankle; backup quarterbac­k DeShone Kizer will make his first career start Saturday against No. 16 Georgia Tech.

It’s more important than ever that Smith’s defense sets the tone for the 10th-ranked Irish moving forward. Smith is many things, but now he must be the mainstay.

He’s the best linebacker Notre Dame has had since Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o walked these grounds. And by the end of the season, Smith might be one of the best players the Irish have ever had.

“Based upon what I saw in the last three weeks of camp, I would be hard pressed to say he won’t be the finest defensive player I’ve ever seen,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told USA TODAY Sports. FORCE ON DEFENSE Smith started as a freshman from Day 1, was a Butkus Award finalist as a sophomore and now uses his versatilit­y to strike fear in opposing defensive coordinato­rs. At 6-2, 240 pounds, Smith can play both outside linebacker positions, and he’s a menace as a pass rush- er — a part of his repertoire he wants to use more often this season.

Already this season he’s penetrated the line of scrimmage more than in the past, averaging 1.75 tackles for loss per game, an increase of more than one per game over 2014.

Smith is already better than Te’o was in college, said Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel and current senior analyst.

“If you ask me who I’m going to grab today and I have my pick between Te’o and Smith, there’s no question that Smith, so far what I know of him and what he’s accomplish­ed in two years, would be my choice,” Brandt said. “I think he’s A) taller, and I think he’s B) faster than Te’o is. Te’o had good (play) recognitio­n. I think that was a big thing with him. I think this guy’s got good recognitio­n also.

“As far as competitiv­eness, I think Teo had good competitiv­eness; I think Jaylon Smith has got unbelievab­le good competitiv­eness. … That’s probably the best descriptio­n of him — that he’s a freak as an athlete. I don’t think there’s any comparison, or will there be, in four years between him and Te’o.”

Much of what makes Smith a freak is natural. But some pieces have been developed over the years. Michael Ledo, who owns AWP Sports Training in Fort Wayne, has worked with Smith since his sophomore year in high school.

“Most of the time, guys like Jaylon, who are so athletic, are the most undercoach­ed people, unfortunat­ely,” Ledo said. “People see all their ability and their gifts, and, instead of coaching them to perfect their craft, they just let them do whatever they do because they’re so talented.”

When Ledo first started training Smith, he was “long and rangy” and “kind of uncoordina­ted,” Ledo said. The pair focused on improving his body control, then getting Smith stronger in the weight room. (Smith weighed 212 pounds as a high school senior.) Then, Ledo added a wrinkle.

“I trained him personally as a defensive back,” Ledo said. “I trained Jaylon with all my corners and DBs, and that’s why he became one of the top players in the country.

“We’d go to 7-on-7 events, and he’d line up at corner. He’d line up at safety. He’d line up at middle linebacker. People were like, ‘Oh my God.’ You’d throw on his highlight film and see him coming off the edge and blitzing — and he could cover people.

“That’s the same reason Jaylon is so good right now and why he’ll be a top draft pick, because of his versatilit­y.” GROWING AS A LEADER Because Smith trained with defensive backs, his ability to change directions quickly comes naturally now, along with the requisite footwork and hip movements.

“He can drop out to guard slot receivers and break into the flats and run with them in open field, and it feels normal,” Ledo said. Smith’s pass rushing skills are impressive as well.

Smith is growing as a leader, too, which doesn’t surprise Ledo, because he’s always known Smith as a team-first kind of player, the guy who wants to give to others before receiving anything himself. Kelly said while Smith doesn’t have quite the same kind of innate leadership qualities that Te’o had, Smith is well-liked by teammates, wants to be someone they flock to and can bring the entire defense together. In terms of athletic ability, the comparison to Te’o is even easier.

“Jaylon is a better athlete,” Kel- ly said. “He’s more violent in the sense that he plays the game at a different level than Manti did. He’s much more athletic, has a different skill set than Manti ever had. Manti just had a sense of the dramatic. He’d make the big play when you needed the big play. The winners do it. The great ones do it. He did it.”

Those dramatic plays — and Notre Dame’s unblemishe­d record heading into the 2012 national championsh­ip game — pushed Te’o into Heisman contention, a rarity for a defensive player.

But if another will merit such voting, it could be Smith. He’s already proved capable of piling up tackles, with a team-best 18 overall and 12 solo through two games to go along with a team-best 3.5 for a loss. He’s already matched his 2014 sack total. He just needs some of those dramatic plays.

He certainly has the right inspiratio­n.

“I look up to guys like Patrick Willis, Von Miller, all those guys who rush out there — Derrick Thomas, Lawrence Taylor, those freaks,” Smith said. “I watch them every day. It’s something I kind of model my game after.”

“I would be hard pressed to say he won’t be the finest defensive player I’ve ever seen.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, on Jaylon Smith

 ?? MATT CASHORE, USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Two games into the season, linebacker Jaylon Smith leads Notre Dame with 18 tackles, 12 solo.
MATT CASHORE, USA TODAY SPORTS Two games into the season, linebacker Jaylon Smith leads Notre Dame with 18 tackles, 12 solo.

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