SOUTH BEND – When Jaylon Smith got a phone call from AWP Sports president Michael Ledo in the days leading up to Notre Dame’s season opener against Temple, the freshman linebacker was expecting to have a regular weekly conversation with the man who had helped train him since he was a freshman at Bishop Luers.
Instead, Smith found out he was starting in a game the Irish won 28-6 on Aug. 31.
Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston gave Ledo the news when contacting the AWP about a potential recruit.
“It’s really just been a humbling experience, just coming in here and getting a great opportunity,” Smith said Wednesday when he was made available for interviews for the first time this season. No. 22 Notre Dame (3-1) is preparing to play host to No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0) on Saturday.
Before the season opener, Smith sent a text to Luers coach Kyle Lindsay, who was the Knights’ offensive coordinator and head coach for one game in Smith’s senior year, asking Lindsay for one thing.
“I sent him a text saying, ‘Good luck, Jaylon,’ ” Lindsay said. “(Luers defensive coordinator Matt Milhouse) and I would be down there and the rest of Luers nation will be there to cheer you on.’
“And he said, ‘Thanks coach,’ and in big bold, ‘PLEASE PRAY FOR ME.’
“I think he was a little bit nervous heading into that first week.”
Smith opened his Irish career by making a tackle on his first play. It was his only tackle, but Temple coach Matt Rhule called him “the real deal” as Smith disrupted the Owls’ passing game with his coverage.
“I was just asking for a blessing through (Lindsay),” Smith said. “Everything was going on with school beginning to start, and you really just have stay locked in. That’s what we try to do here.”
Smith has 11 tackles, one for loss and a pass breakup in four games, and he is coming off a four-tackle performance in last Saturday’s 17-13 win over Michigan State. Those who have coached Smith said he is just scratching the surface of his potential.
“When he gets to his 100 percent level, you are going to notice it,” Milhouse said.
Smith received plenty of attention before coming to Notre Dame. He was rated No. 3 best recruit by Rivals.com after recording 75 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and eight sacks as a senior at Luers.
And he’s still getting noticed, especially after home games.
“I’ve been at Notre Dame a lot with all the players we’ve had in the past (former tight end Tyler Eifert, former receiver John Goodman and defensive lineman Tony Springmann), and I’ve never seen anybody react to a player like Jaylon,” Ledo said. “I didn’t see people react that way about Tyler, until he was a junior. With Jaylon, he is so humble. It is no big deal to him.”
Part of the reason Smith got the chance to start was that outside linebacker Danny Spond had to stop playing before the season because of severe migraines.
Smith said Spond has been giving him great advice on how to play, and Smith has been helped by Prince Shembo, who starts at the other outside linebacker position and roomed with him during fall camp.
“(Shembo) is helping me improve my game and being more physical,” Smith said. “Coming in as a freshman, I played running back in high school, so it was a different environment, focusing strictly on defense. I’ve adjusted well.”
Smith’s adjustment was helped by his ability to learn. Coach Brian Kelly said the linebacker rarely makes the same mistake twice, which is the same attribute Smith had in high school.
“He tried to learn everything he could here. He wanted to soak things up like a sponge,” Lindsay said. “We didn’t experience having to tell him much other than once as well. That’s just the kind of kid he is. A high character kid and someone who cares about becoming the best he can be. It’s paying off already.”