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Notre Dame
vs. Rice
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
TV: NBC
Radio: 1190 AM, 92.3 FM, 107.3 FM
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Linebacker Jaylon Smith has come into the new season more muscular and as more of a leader for the Irish.

New year brings new-look Smith

Luers grad pumps up leadership

SOUTH BEND

Jaylon Smith has dropped his body fat to 3.9 percent, a measurement still creating buzz among teammates.

He showed up to training camp looking a little different: maybe longer dreadlocks, certainly additional muscle.

“I’m the same me; Just a full year of weight lifting really pulls out,” the Notre Dame linebacker said.

Physique is the wrong place to focus, though. The big change with Smith entering his sophomore season is that his personality is in full blossom.

Coming out of Bishop Luers, he never envisioned emerging as one of the more vocal on-field and off-field leaders on the Irish defense.

“You have to humble yourself, let everything go and just learn,” said Smith, who admittedly took a backseat as a freshman.

At such a storied program, there surely would always be other voices, right?

For a time, there were, and boy, did Smith appreciate Prince Shembo and Danny Spond. But they graduated, the defense got young, and suddenly there was a need.

Smith is the same Smith, yes, but now Smith is being Smith without apprehensions.

“I think he’s feeling more comfortable that he can get out in front,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Certainly only being here a year, I think he wanted to make sure he wasn’t stepping out in front of upperclassmen, but he runs the linebacker group now.

“He’s very influential on the defensive side of the ball, and people follow him.”

Probably that dynamic was bound to unfold. It did in high school. Heck, Smith said he was even showing the way back on the playground in elementary school.

This leadership stuff comes naturally to him. He doesn’t shirk the responsibility or burden. He embraces it.

“It’s really just who I am,” Smith said. “It’s not forced. It’s what I desire. The team needs leaders.”

Kelly considered making Smith a captain for this season, which would have been very unusual for a player still young, but instead chose junior Sheldon Day and senior Austin Collinsworth on defense.

That didn’t take away from Smith’s stature as one of the leaders on defense.

“It’s because he’s a high-effort guy,” Day said. “You always see Jaylon running to the ball and doing everything he needs to be accountable.”

With the Irish going to different strategies under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, Smith is someone who can help get and keep things organized.

“He has very good football intellect,” position coach Bob Elliott said. “He’s got a thirst for learning. I can’t say enough good things about him. I love being around him.”

Backed by his play, Smith has found his touch verbally, reading different situations.

“You’ve got to know when to come at a guy and impose your will,” Smith said. “You also have to understand when to pull a guy aside and correct something. I learn every day about how to be a leader.”

The impressive freshman-to-sophomore jump indicates he’s a fast learner.

“He’s a man,” Kelly said. “I have not been around many players that have grown so quickly the way he has in a very short period of time.”

Smith said just like speed or strength, there is a competitive edge to leadership.

“I’m not sure if it’s genetic or it’s just in me,” he said. “All I know is it’s there.”

cgoff@jg.net

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