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Tom Davis | The News-Sentinel | September 9, 2015

How great is Jaylon Smith? Notre Dame coach says he's the best

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly says he's never coached a player with Jaylon Smith's ability.

The comparisons were going to be inevitable.

Manti Teo was the heart of a sound Notre Dame defense at middle linebacker that played a key role in the Fighting Irish achieving a great deal of success in 2012.

In wake of Notre Dame's 38-3 beatdown of Texas Saturday in South Bend, the Irish Nation -- and college football fans in general -- are curious if THIS Irish defense will be just as good and also put the program back onto the national stage. And they are also curious if Notre Dame All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith is every bit the player that Teo was.

On Tuesday, veteran Irish coach Brian Kelly answered that question.

"Short answer," Kelly said, "I haven't coached a player like (Smith) before, period."

That assessment wasn't a knock on Teo. He was great. He will forever be regarded as one of the legends of Notre Dame football (for reasons on AND off of the field). But as Kelly stated, he's no Jaylon Smith.

"(Smith) can line up with his hand on the ground," Kelly explained. "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."

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Therein lays the difference between the two players.

Smith is so much more athletic and that allows him the versatility to play just about anywhere on the field. At 250 pounds, and with his speed, the former Bishop Luers High School standout could line up as a defensive lineman, he can play any of the linebacker spots or he could cover most receivers as a defensive back.

Kelly joked when Smith signed with Notre Dame that the question wasn't if he would play immediately, but where exactly. Kelly even said that he could star as a running back if he chose to.

The Irish will travel to Virginia Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC) and Cavalier coach Mike London is well aware of the speed of Smith. He spoke in general terms on the topic of Notre Dame linebacker play Monday, but for those that follow the Irish closely, you could read into which specific player London was referring to.

"You look at Notre Dame from guys up front and the linebacking corps," London said. "they're capable of running and running out of mistakes."

He didn't mean Joe Schmidt.

As Kelly debated where exactly to play then-freshman athlete Smith, he and Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder now talk about how best to utilize him, because the coaching options are almost limitless schematically.

Smith has moved around in his three seasons in South Bend, but the key to his success is allowing him the opportunity to be in the action, Kelly explained.

"The development of the defense and where he is," Kelly said, "it puts him in a position on those rundowns where we can get him into the center of the action.

"It really was about getting him in the center of action, and that will linebacker position keeps him around the action as much as we can. We can even dictate terms in the sense that, even if you want to go two by two and try to get him out of the box, we can even dictate that and keep him in there. So it was really more about keeping him in the center of our defense than anything else."

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The NFL scouts that are on campus virtually daily are salivating at the thought of Smith entering the league next spring. They too, are curious as to how best to use this freak of an athlete at the next level.

"I think that they are very similar in their evaluation (as the Notre Dame coaches) in that he has great versatility for him. He's almost -- he's 250 pounds. So he can play inside. He can play outside.

"He provides a unique opportunity, even for those at the next level, that because he can run and rush the passer, he can play both inside and outside. That's very unique for a defensive player."

Despite the distraction of knowing that he could be a millionaire at this time next year, Kelly said Smith is focused on the 2015 Notre Dame team -- not his future. Teo ended up being the 38th pick (second round) in the 2013 NFL Draft, while Smith is regarded as a can't-miss first round selection by many analysts.

"I think he understands that the more success we have as a team, he'll gain that leverage individually moving forward, and all the players will," Kelly said. "The more success you have as a team is going to garner you more interest individually. So they've all focused on the team and how they play as a team.

"Certainly, what they do out there is going to be evaluated certainly by every NFL team, but they're committed to the football team first because they know the success that the team has is going to bring on success for them individually later."


Despite the 35-point blowout of the Longhorns that was never in jeopardy, the NBC broadcast of Saturday's game was the most-watched Notre Dame game in nine seasons.

Over four million people tuned into watch the game, which drew a 2.42 HH rating.

The broadcast nearly doubled last year's season-opener against Rice.

This article was written by Tom Davis from The News-Sentinel and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.



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