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A Full Toolbox At Linebacker

Freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith told his trainers and coaches he intended to be a first-string player this season as soon as he signed a letter of intent to come to South Bend back in February. With some help from his teammates, the rookie will get a chance to make good on those claims one week from Saturday.

Freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith has impressed teammates with his athleticism and his football intelligence.

Smith is one of several freshmen who impressed the team’s veterans and coaches during the first three weeks of training camp. Several have found slots in the two-deep roster, but only Smith is likely to be on the field for the first snap of the season against Temple.

When senior outside linebacker Danny Spond unexpectedly ended his career for medical reasons, the Irish turned to Smith and junior Ben Councell to help fill the void. The two players with different skills will combine forces to take over the multi-faceted Dog linebacker position.

“When you look at that position there is so much going on to wide field formationally, adjustments, pressures,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We really think we’ve got two players there. …We’re very lucky in losing a player like [tag linked="true" key="" url=""]Danny Spond[/tag] to have those two guys. They’ve done very, very well.”

Notre Dame is no stranger to the “replacement by committee” mentality. The Irish have approached replacing All-Americans on both sides of the ball this season as a team effort. They’ll need the same from Smith and Councell to keep the edge of their defense as a strong point this year.

How often Smith and Councell play this year will be dictated by the Irish opponents as much as by the players themselves. The drop linebacker position in Notre Dame’s defense is responsible not only to hold the edge of the defense against some running looks, but also to defend athletic slot receivers in pass coverage.

Smith, at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, is 20 pounds lighter that Councell and will be giving up even more in size to some of the tight ends and tackles the outside linebacker has to fend off in the run game. Against teams that like to crowd the backfield and line of scrimmage — Michigan State, for example — Councell is Notre Dame’s first option.

The athleticism that earned Smith a ranking as the No. 1 linebacker prospect in the country will help the Irish against teams that like to spread the field with three or four wide receivers and throw the ball. Smith first jumped to the top of many college’s wish lists when he shut down some of the country’s top high school receivers in man coverage at 7-on-7 tournaments from his linebacker position.

“If you want to go three wide and you want to play an open set, Jaylon has incredible athleticism to be able to play in space,” Kelly said.

The result is a tag-team approach at the drop position that defensive coordinator Bob Diaco compared to a fully-stocked toolbox.

“You’re going to need a Phillips Head screwdriver and a flathead screwdriver,” Diaco said. “One’s a flathead and one is a Phillips Head. When you have a screw that you need to screw in that has a Phillips head, you better grab the Phillips Head screwdriver.”

For those keeping scoring, Diaco says, “Ben’s more of a flathead.”

Councell’s two years of experience in the defense also give him an advantage in getting on the field. Smith’s teammates, though, say they have been just as impressed with his football IQ as his college-ready physique.

Smith asked fifth-year senior [tag linked="true" key="" url=""]Dan Fox[/tag] to watch film with him during the summer to get a better idea of what he should expect to see at the next level. Fox said he was a little taken aback by how quickly the rookie was able to recognize what type of plays might be coming from particular offensive formations.

“He was saying some things that took me a little bit of time to start picking up. He knew it right away,” said Fox, who filled in at the Dog position briefly at the start of the 2012 season. “That coupled with the passion for the game and the passion for learning the game is something that I think he really has.”

Smith starts his first regular-length college courses next week and still has a lot of learning to do. His base knowledge will give him the chance to keep expanding his knowledge while fulfilling his goals to get on the field right away.

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