Smith welcoming challenge of college life

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Word was that Jaylon Smith clocked in a 4.4 40-time at the Best of the Midwest camp two winters ago in Indianapolis. By the time he completes his freshman year at Notre Dame, that number might very well be re-told as a 4.2 or 4.3. By the time he finishes his college career, presumably to fulfill expectations at the next level, his legend might just reach comical proportions.

"I'm not sure how accurate it was," Mike Ledo, Smith's trainer at AWP Sports Performance in Fort Wayne, Ind., said with a laugh. "Then he went out to face a top lineman there and was rushing off the edge and killing the lineman. Then he ran over to 1-on-1s with receivers and defensive backs, and he was shutting down the top receivers there as a corner.

"It was pretty evident there: To dominate bigs, and then go over and play cornerbacks at his size, was impressive."

For the record, Smith, ESPN's No. 7 overall prospect last year, was credited with a 4.59 40-time upon completing his prep work at Bishop Luers. And he has since started all four games for the Fighting Irish this season at Dog linebacker, perhaps the most complicated position in coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme.

The precocious 6-foot-3, 230-pounder has tallied 11 total tackles, including one for loss, to go with a pass breakup and a pass defended, illustrating downfield skills that helped him rally from No. 3 to No. 1 on the depth chart over the course of preseason camp.

"He always trained with my DBs, so I helped him develop great cover skills," Ledo said. "He texted me in camp thanking me so much for helping him cover; apparently that was the difference to get on field: His ability, at 6-3, to cover in space, kind of like a safety. That was the expectation."

Starter Danny Spond's early retirement because of migraines left Smith battling 6-foot-5, 254-pound redshirt sophomore Ben Councell. Ledo, apparently, was the one who informed Smith that he was No. 1 on Notre Dame's initial depth chart heading into the opener against Temple.

Smith, meeting the media for the first time on Wednesday, said any butterflies he had disappeared after the first series against the Owls.

"After the first series, really," Smith said. "I was really pumped up. I knew all the fighting songs and things like that. I went to about every home game last year, so I was really just anticipating everything and it was fun."

The football part has, in some ways, been the easiest part of Smith's transition. He did not enroll until June, and he said that learning how to balance his time off the field has been the biggest adjustment.

"He's impressive. He can come in and do all the things he's done, obviously as a freshman, and he's a very mature guy, very physically mature guy," safety Matthias Farley said. "So I think he's gotten a lot more comfortable in his role throughout the last couple weeks and he's continued to improve each and every week, so the sky's the limit for him and he's obviously playing very well."

Spond, who has remained with the Irish as a student-coach, announced his retirement to the team after an Aug. 17 practice. Smith said the only thoughts that hit him at that time were for Spond and his long-term health. Exactly two weeks later, Smith was taking the field with the Irish for their first defensive snap of the season.

Mistakes have followed since, Smith said, but thoughts of the future and its promise have helped him put minimal gaffes behind and allowed the freshman to press on toward a career as promising as any of the Brian Kelly era.

"I have a long way to go but I think I'm on the right track, and really just worried abut tomorrow and just getting out on the field, continuing to stay healthy," Smith said. "It's a 12-13 week season, so it's something that I've been quite used to, winning four state championships. But it's a different level. You have to go hard every play here."