Editor’s Note: This story first appeared for The Observer on Sept. 15, 2017.
When Irish junior linebacker Jaylon Smith first walked through the doors of AWP Sports Training in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Michael Ledo saw the same post-growth spurt clumsiness that’s a part of life for all adolescents.
“Jaylon sophomore year in high school was extremely long and athletic but lacked some body control, especially when it came to footwork and change of direction,” the owner and CEO of the training center said.
Still, Ledo said it didn’t take him long to realize just what he had on his hands.
“I saw that Jaylon is a rare breed of an athlete immediately because of his commitment to growth over goals,” Ledo said. “The enemy to being great is being good, and Jaylon is never satisfied with being good. He wants to be the best in the world.”
It’s a side of the story not often told about Jaylon Smith.
It’s a bit cliché, but sometimes the most tragic stories in sports are about young athletes who possessed all of the physical abilities for greatness but lacked the drive, hunger and desire that was also needed for them to become one of the greats. The ones that leave the world with ‘what if’ on the tip of its collective tongue.
Smith is far from one of those.
Much is made of his freakish athletic ability and the physical tools he possesses. Those alone are enough to get National Football League executives drooling over the prospect of him declaring for the league’s draft this spring, where some way-too-early mocks have him listed as a potential top-10 pick come April.
And for good reason. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Smith can test even the best offensive linemen with a dangerous pass rush on first down, slip out and lock down a slot receiver on second and then complete the three-and-out by sticking an open-field tackle short of the sticks on third down.
Just ask Tyrone Swoopes, who ended up on the wrong side of such a third-down play just two weeks ago. The 6-foot-4, 244-pound Texas quarterback was stopped dead in his tracks by Smith despite gathering a full head of steam out of the backfield.
“Some of the plays, he may be in the wrong spot, but all of a sudden he takes off for the sideline and covers so much ground, it’s like, you think he has the speed of a safety, but he’s 240 pounds,” fellow junior linebacker James Onwualu said of Smith. “So I think some of those natural gifted plays he has, is something for me to be like, ‘Wow, that’s unbelievable.’ He’s an unbelievable athlete. Athlete to athlete, I can really respect that.”
“Short answer, I haven’t coached a player like him before, period,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sept. 8. “He can line up with his hand on the ground. He can cover the inside receiver. He can play in the box. He can tackle in open space. There’s not much he can’t do. He’s a rare, rare defensive player. It’s just fun watching him play.”
Onwualu said he still remembers the first time he met Smith at a football camp in Michigan.
“We were out on the grass, and he was wearing his Notre Dame hat, and I was already committed so I just went right up to him and said ‘Hi’ to him, and I didn’t even know him,” Onwualu said. “I was a receiver, so I wasn’t looking at, like, who was the best linebacker in the country, so before you know it we were talking.”
Then, Onwualu said, he kept noticing Smith — everywhere.
“He was playing every position,” Onwualu said. “I wish I remember the name of the camp because there’s probably some sick footage of him playing running back, then going to play cornerback, then linebacker.”
Yet for all his athletic ability, Smith possesses an even greater set of assets: his drive, desire and mental acuity, Ledo said.
“Jaylon Smith’s greatest attribute is his mind and heart. As great as an athlete he is, we have seen others with the same ability before him and after. But we will be hard pressed to see others the combination of his athletic ability, influence, intelligence and heart,” Ledo said.
It is a distinctive quality about Smith, one that allowed him to dominate the high school gridiron as a part of Bishop Luers High School’s four consecutive state championships at Indiana’s Class 2A level. Ledo said everyone who works with Smith on a day-to-day basis discovers just how well he is able to take new information and integrate it into his play.
“Jaylon was blessed with amazing coaching at Bishop Luers, and coach [Matt] Millhouse was an amazing defensive coordinator that prepared Jaylon mentally for college schemes,” Ledo said. “I totally agree with them all; Jaylon has what I would call an extremely high learning agility. He has a gift to learn and apply what he learned extremely fast.”
Onwualu and Smith have spent much of their Notre Dame careers together, being part of the same class and position group. They watch film, lift and even jam out together in the locker room pre- and post-practice, so Onwualu has had a front row seat to Smith’s evolution over his time on campus. He even credited Smith as a large factor in his own development for the Irish.
“I lift with him, and it’s part of the reason for my gains,” Onwualu said. “We lift hard together, just like he is on the field. We get in there, and we do our work.
“He just gets after it.”
For his part, Smith said his development over his time in South Bend in the mental aspects of the game has increased “tremendously.”
“Just my knowledge of the game and understanding different concepts and understanding why I’m supposed to do something,” Smith said when asked where his game has improved the most. “If I do this, where’s my teammate going to be? And just the overall understanding of defense in the objective is something that I’ve improved upon tremendously here.”
Onwualu said this knowledge and understanding comes from Smith’s commitment to and passion for the game of football.
“Mentally, he just straight up loves the game,” Onwualu said. “He wants to continue to study it. He pushes himself to continue to learn the game, and he works hard. That’s why he’s so smart.”
The devotion and work ethic described by Onwualu was a large factor in Smith being named a captain for the 2015 season. Kelly said after the announcement it was not only because Smith is the best player on the defense but also because of the impact he has in all facets of the game, both on and off the field.
Smith said he credits his drive and approach to the game to his family and early mentors, like Ledo and Millhouse.
“I think it comes from within. It comes from how I was raised and just the overall mindset of wanting to be something,” Smith said. “It’s kind of inexplicable. I’ve always been taught just be a humble guy, and if you work at something, you’ll get it.
“And I just want to go get it.”
“He’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever met,” Onwualu said. “From day on,e he’s stayed consistent, and he’s still one of those guys that you can count on to compete every play.”
Through it all, Smith said he knows he’s lucky to be where he is today. He said his humility guides the mentality with which he approaches everything, especially hard workouts and tedious film sessions.
“Just lock in. This game, that’s sports, using it as a platform that’s bigger than me,” Smith said. “It’s not about my success or anything, like, that I do this for. There’s definitely a bigger reason why I’m blessed to be on this platform.”
That said, a little success on the way probably doesn’t hurt anything, especially with the top-15 matchup against Georgia Tech on Saturday looming and questions about Notre Dame’s legitimacy as a playoff contender thickening the air around the program.
“Every game is exciting for me,” Smith said. “You get an opportunity to step out there, but it’s going to be a great environment being at home for the second time this season. We’re looking forward to it.
“It definitely elevates the hype of the game, but at the end of the day it’s another game. I’m pumped for every game.”
Words according to a mentality that must strike at least a little fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks everywhere.