SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Without context, listening to Jaylon Smith chat with the media after Notre Dame’s spring game April 12, you might expect the Irish linebacker to be a middling player making a marginal position change.
“I’m blessed to be getting a lot of things thrown at me,” the sophomore said.
“When I committed here, I committed to doing anything to help the team win,” Smith later added.
Spoken like a role player merely looking to make a positive impact in a new position.
But Smith is hardly a role player, and his shift to more of an inside linebacker spot is hardly a marginal move.
“It puts arguably our best off‑the‑ball player … next to all the things that you can do defensively, and so that was really in the decision more than anything else, just to get him in a position where we can activate him at any time,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly explained after the Blue-Gold Game.
The former 5-star recruit—and the No. 2 overall player in class of 2013, according to 247Sports—stepped in as a freshman and started all 13 games in 2013 at the “Dog” linebacker position in former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s scheme. Smith shined at the drop linebacker spot, finishing third on the squad with 67 tackles and second with 6.5 tackles for loss.
Now, Smith is slotted at the “Will” linebacker position under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The Fort Wayne, Ind., native now lines up more centrally among the linebackers, a shift that came about during spring practice.
Defensively, interesting to see Jaylon Smith lined up in the A gaps at linebacker, basically where Carlo or Fox were last year.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) March 19, 2014
Part of the change stems from VanGorder’s aggressive defense, which aims to bring more pressure from various spots on the perimeter, according to Kelly.
“We could afford to [bring] that [pressure] with other personnel,” Kelly said. “We can do it with a nickel. We can do it with somebody from the secondary, a fifth player from the secondary. So it allows us some flexibility to move [Smith] around.”
Kelly said need was another component in the decision to move Smith inside, where the head coach thinks his stud sophomore can better impact the game.
Smith said he only played inside linebacker in one game—a playoff contest—during his time at Bishop Luers High School.
“Every play starts with sight,” Smith said of adjusting to playing inside. “All my life, I’ve seen the game from an outside perspective. It’s really just getting used to reading offensive linemen from inside out, just little things like that. I’ve had 14 practices and the spring game to actually get the hang of it so it’s going good.”
Armed with the added knowledge and ability to play from an inside-out perspective, Smith becomes an even more versatile weapon for the Irish, Kelly said.
“We can move him around, and he has an understanding of how to play this defense both inside‑out and outside‑in and that he had no knowledge of going into the spring,” Kelly said. “That's a smart football player, and a guy that now is an asset to our defense in a manner that he never was before.”
Never before was he positioned in the middle of the Notre Dame defense. So too was Smith never one of the most experienced players on the defense last year.
That changes in 2014, however, as Smith and junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell are the only returning defensive players who started all 13 games a season ago. Smith is eagerly seeking more of a leadership role.
“I’m looking forward to that,” Smith said. “I’m taking that challenge on. I don’t want to be looked at as just a sophomore. I want to be a leader, on the defense, on the team.”
Spoken like a central cog with a central position in a new-look defense.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.