SOUTH BEND – Jaylon Smith has faced an option offense before, but the Notre Dame linebacker and former Bishop Luers star hasn’t seen it in four years.
Smith said the only option team he remembers playing in high school was Lewis Cass. The Knights defeated the Kings 54-53 in two overtimes in his freshman season.
Smith will get his chance to help stop option offenses in the Irish’s next two games as Notre Dame (5-2) travels to play Air Force (1-6) on Saturday and plays host to Navy (3-3) next week.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Smith said Wednesday. “There are so many things going on when you play option teams like Air Force or Navy or some team like that. I really just have to buy into the process.”
Fortunately for Smith, he has an extra teacher to help prepare him for Air Force and Navy.
Danny Spond, who had to stop playing for Notre Dame before the season because of the recurrence of severe migraines, has remained with the team in a coaching role. And the former linebacker, who was replaced by Smith in the starting lineup, has taken the freshman under his wing.
“Jaylon is a tremendous athlete, twice the athlete I ever was,” Spond said.
“It’s just fun to work with him and see him take in the coaching and really respect me as a former teammate and now as a coach.”
Smith said Spond has helped him with his eye progression and how to figure out if a team is going to pass or run based on things like whether an offensive tackle is leaning forward or where the tight end is positioned.
“I think different but better, because he has actually been through it,” Smith said of getting tips from Spond. “Outside of (defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Bob) Diaco, he knows the position better than anyone on the team. Having a guy like that in Danny, it has been a great help.”
Smith has started every game this season, but the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder does share time with 6-4, 254-pound junior Ben Councell.
Even though Councell is slightly bigger than Smith, the freshman will be counted on to help the Irish slow down a Falcons’ rushing attack that averages 268.6 yards.
“We’re putting a couple of packages together for that,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Air Force is an option team, but they do have some other principles.
“They’re a little bit different than, say, Navy in terms of their formation. So Jaylon Smith will be on the field quite a bit for us.”
Smith has done quite a bit for Notre Dame so far this season.
He is fifth on the team in tackles with 31, and he has 3 1/2 tackles for loss, two pass breakups, forced a fumble and recorded his first interception in last week’s 14-10 win over USC when he picked off a pass intended for receiver Nelson Agholor.
As appreciative as Smith is for Spond’s help, the former Irish player is just as happy to help the freshman.
“When you come in as a freshman, you got all the physical attributes and stuff, and now you just got to learn the system. For me, it is fun to be able to hopefully shorten off a year or two of the mental game and teach him the shortcuts and what to watch for and stuff,” Spond said. “His play speaks for itself. How he reacts and the plays he has been making on defense.
“Behind the scenes, it has been fun to see an 18-year-old kid, who just came out of high school, really listen to someone who’s just a couple of years older than him.”