SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame freshman linebacker and former Bishop Luers star Jaylon Smith was made available for interviews for the first time this season on Wednesday.
Before talking with Smith, The Journal Gazette contacted Bishop Luers coach Kyle Lindsay, who was the offensive coordinator and coached one game for the Knights during Jaylon Smith's senior year, Luers defensive coordinator Matt Milhouse and AWP Sports president Michael Ledo, who has helped train Smith since his freshman year at Luers, to share their thoughts on the linebacker.
Here are some of the things they said and Smith's reaction to some of the stories from his past:
The legend of Jaylon Smith
Smith made numerous spectacular plays in his four years at Luers.
But Lindsay and Milhouse both pointed to one defensive play Smith made as a junior against Indianapolis Brebeuf as one of the best things they every saw him do on the field.
Here is how Lindsay described the play: "He locked up a slot receiver from his outside linebacker spot. He jammed him to the point where he put the kid on the ground. The quarterback was anticipating this receiver running a quick slant, but Jaylon had just pummeled the kid to the ground. The quarterback throws the ball. Jaylon steps in, jumps up, high points it, gets it at its highest point, then he turns around on his return he stiffed arm somebody, shook somebody on our sideline, it had to be like a 30-35 yard return then he finished by running one of their lineman over right on our sideline. It was incredible."
"That was one of the most text book play I've seen from a high school linebacker in my years of coaching," Milhouse said.
Ledo said the most impressive thing he saw Smith do came at a combine in Indianapolis during February before Smith's senior year at Luers.
"He went over with the big men on the offensive and defensive line, and he went over and went up against about five nationally ranked offensive linemen. He just dominated them coming off the edge as a speed rusher," Ledo said. "Then he left that side of the field, ran on to the other side of the field and was defending Division I wide receivers lined up as a cornerback. He defended the guy who was the MVP of the camp. He went from being a pass rusher and dominating 6-5 offensive linemen coming off the edge, and then he covered a 5-7, 170-pound slot receiver. That was the most impressive thing I've ever seen him do. The thing that makes him so good is his versatility. His ability to cover space takes so much away from other teams. There are things they can't do because of his versatility. Next year, you may see him with his hand on the ground like Prince Shembo, coming off the edge.
I think next year when he gets bigger, you will see Notre Dame put his hand on the ground and have him come of the edge. But then you will see him covering space, because he has that unique versatility. He can do it all."
Smith's reaction to the play against Brebeuf: "In practice the week before, we were doing a half line drill with the (defensive backs) and the linebackers and the scout team was running routes. I wasn't re-routing. I wasn't putting my hands on them, or what we call at Notre Dame, 'short walling.' We practiced it all week. When the opportunity came against Brebeuf, it just brought me back to practice. I completed it well. The guy fell, and I picked it off. That's probably one of the greatest plays at my career at Bishop Luers."
He's not perfect
Smith does a lot of things well, but there is one thing he can't do on the football field – Throw the ball.
"He could have played every position on the field," Milhouse said. "I don't know about quarterback. He doesn't have an arm."
Lindsay said Smith would lineup at quarterback in Wildcat formations, but he never wanted him to throw.
"There was really nothing he couldn't do, except for maybe throw the ball," Lindsay said. "I don't know why. They kid could do everything with his feet, he just could never throw the ball very well."
Smith's reaction: "I'm horrible at throwing. Honestly, I've never tried. I had the work ethic. I could have definitely been better than (Tim) Tebow. But it's just never been part of my game, and I've never been asked to do that."
Smith also was never asked to kick, but he wanted to.
"He's one that always wanted to kick," Lindsay said. "He kicked in grade school. I'll tell you this, it wasn't pretty. He was a toe-basher. He didn't have a whole lot of body control. He didn't understand the fundamentals of kicking. But I have seen him get a hold of a couple, and if we had to ask him, he probably could have taken over those kicking duties."
Smith said not getting a chance to kick in high school is a regret.
Smith's reaction: "I was kicker through pee-wee and middle school. I was actually pretty good at it. (Lindsay) would never let me, but I would always sneak it in at practice, and I would always make. And everybody would be like, 'Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah.' But he would never let me."
Smith said he has not tried to kick during Notre Dame's practices.
Hometown, Luers pride
Smith texts Lindsay during the week, and those messages are about Luers and what he hopes the Knights can do this season.
"He's such a special kid," Lindsay said. "He sends text messages throughout the season wishing the team luck, wishing me luck, telling us he misses us, he misses his former teammates. He misses the coaches. That's not something everyone does. That's why teachers and coaches get into this profession. Why they love doing it. Kids like Jaylon, any kid that leave the program that says he misses it.
"Kids don't use the word love a lot. He says I love you guys and I love Bishop Luers football and I miss it. That says a lot about the kid and what he thought of Bishop Luers and how in his mind Luers helped him get where he is at."
Smith's reaction: "It's just the kind of guy my mother raised me to be. It's natural. It's not something that I'm putting on. I'm just a loving type of guy I'd say. They are all great people, and they've been a great influence in my life. I don't know what I would do without them."
Milhouse records every game Notre Dame plays, and he uses those games to look at what Smith is doing and will offer advice to his former charge.
One of the things Milhouse said he has said to Smith is that the linebacker needs to play more physical.
"That's one of the things that he's needed to work on and something we kind of knew going in, especially being a freshman, we talked about trust yourself a little more and be confident with your body. If you look at the size of the kid, you wouldn't really know he's a freshman out there," Milhouse said. "I just think sometimes he's got a lot in his head, when he disengages from blocks, one thing that we have constantly talked about over the years is just being physical at the point of attack. Trust in your body and the scheme that you are in to make more physical plays. I think that's something that he has been working on and will continue to work on.
"The thing about Jaylon is he knows what his strengths and weaknesses are, so he will be able to tailor that into his preparation."
Smith's reaction: "I really just appreciate all the coaches just coaching me and improving my football IQ and just telling me to be myself."
Smith does not show a lot of emotion when he is not playing football.
But Ledo said that calm demeanor disappears when Smith is on the field.
"When he plays the game, he enjoys it more than anybody I've ever seen," Ledo said. "He is always jumping around, running around, celebrating, clapping someone's hand, making a gesture after a play. Even when he makes a mistake, I will guarantee you this, you will never see that young man drop his head. Everybody is going to make a mistake. He will miss a tackle. He will get beat. But he' not that guy where you will see the shoulders slumping, the head dropping, the body language change. The body language is always consistent. He has a blast."
Smith's reaction: "There's been mistakes, and everyone gets mad about those. But it is all about the next play."