SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The physical traits have always been prominent when analyzing why Notre Dame sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith has reached an elite level of play on the football field.
His abilities were obvious as a freshman at Bishop Luers High School, when despite his youth, he was called upon to make the play of the season in a 54-53 double-overtime regional championship victory against Lewis Cass, which ultimately propelled the Knights to the first of their four consecutive IHSAA Class 2A state championships.
And they'll be obvious Saturday, as the Fighting Irish play host to Rice in their 2014 season opener.
"Physically, he's very gifted," Notre Dame director of strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo said recently. "He's got great stamina and more than anything his intensity and love of the game are second to none."
Smith is nearly 6-foot-3 and a perfectly sculpted 235 pounds (with 3.9 percent body fat), and yes, he possesses speed and power -- incredible speed and power. But there is more to his greatness than only those traits -- as if those weren't enough.
"There are a lot of athletes like Jaylon," Notre Dame outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott explained.
If indeed "there are a lot of athletes like Jaylon," then what truly distinguishes him as extraordinary?
"[Those other athletes] don't combine what Jaylon has [mentally] with his football intellect and his attitude," Elliott finished.
As both Longo and Elliott surmised, Smith has elite physical ability and a tremendous passion for the game, so with those characteristics, he begins to weed himself from the pack of great college linebackers. But his mental acuity takes that separation to yet another level.
"He's as smart of a kid as I've ever coached," Elliott said.
That assessment carries significance considering Elliott entered the coaching profession during the presidency of Gerald Ford.
"He has very good football intellect and he's a very natural player," Elliott said. "Jaylon is a humble guy and he's got a thirst for learning. It's amazing and he works harder at it than anybody."
Athleticism, intelligence, passion for the sport and now humility and work ethic -- how many prep All-Americans spend their limited free time working at Burger King, as Smith did? -- are thrown into Smith's genetic concoction, and it begins to crystallize why this guy very well might be the best outside linebacker in the country.
That brings up another component to this guy. He's smart enough to learn a new position for the third consecutive season, yet no one believes that will negatively impact his greatness this fall.New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has installed a different base scheme (Notre Dame will switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment mostly this season), with different attacking angles, some of which will include Smith, who will shift to a more interior position in that alignment.
"Coach VanGorder has done a great job bringing him a long," Elliott said. "I'm just amazed how he's taken to it. He had to learn completely new footwork and he had to learn new eye progressions."
"When you are [inside] the box, you have to see everything," Elliott explained. "You have to see the pulling guards, tackles pulling, and tight ends that go back behind the line of scrimmage. Jaylon has been able to master that."
He is Notre Dame's leading returning tackler (67 total and 6 1/2 for loss) after starting every single game as a true freshman. This fall, he'll be asked to rush the passer, stop the run, cover lumbering and huge tight ends, as well as speedy running backs.
And he'll deliver in each of those regards.
"Jaylon's an awfully good football player," VanGorder said. "He's still learning, and he approaches it every day with a great attitude. He wants to learn, he wants to improve and he wants to get better. It's going to be exciting watching him get better week-by-week, He's a high impact player."
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