The Grounded Heir

It’s been 14 minutes since he started and Jaylon Smith has yet to finish walking from one end of the Bishop Luers High School gym to the other.

FIve-star linebacker Jaylon Smith has been cast as the replacement to Notre Dame superstar Manti Te'o.

The Ft. Wayne parochial school picked the night of its basketball homecoming game in early February to pay tribute to Smith, the region’s first winner of Indiana’s Mr. Football Award. The school surprised him an hour before the opening tip by retiring the black and red No. 9 jersey he wore for four years and four state championships at Luers. Now, wearing a blue Notre Dame warm-up jacket and Fighting Irish hat, the 17-year-old rising star is patiently wading through a stream of autograph seekers.

He pats the heads of waist-high fans and signs a pair of game programs for a gray-bearded man in a plain blue baseball cap and a dated, hoodless sweatshirt. He occasionally stops to say hello to a face he recognizes. The game mercifully begins and Smith makes his way to the student cheering section at the far baseline. He pulls off the Notre Dame jacket and slips into the second row, disappearing between a pair of skinny jeans and an upperclassman in a baby blue bathrobe covered with pictures of penguins.

It’s hard for Smith to disappear. The 6-3, 225-pound linebacker causes a stir when he visits the mall with friends or stops for breakfast at a local diner. He rarely leaves home without a Sharpie in his pocket. It’s easier than having to track down a pen when someone recognizes him.

When Bishop Luers beat Andrean, a similar school from the opposite side of the state, in the Class 2A semifinals this November a crowd of students wearing Andrean letterman’s jackets waited for Smith outside the stadium. They wanted to snap pictures with the man who had just ended their classmates’ championship hopes with 146 rushing yards.

Last March Smith took a job at Burger King to try to escape his notoriety and indulge in a normal teenage experience. He mans the front counter and drops baskets of fries into bubbling grease. Eddie Woods started as the restaurant’s assistant manager six months ago and couldn’t figure out why the line always seemed to snake back to the door on Sunday afternoons. Word got out that Smith worked the cash register on Sunday, and soon after customers poured in to get their napkins signed and chat with the next big thing.

“He’s just a man trying to live in a kid’s world,” Woods said.

Smith’s athleticism —a brow-raising first step and remarkable closing speed on a frame built to house the type of impact edge player that is changing the way colleges play defense — won him acclaim as the country’s best high school linebacker this past fall. When he chose nearby Notre Dame from a long list of scholarship offers in June his profile made another quantum leap. Smith was cast as the leader of a second wave of the defensive renaissance in South Bend, the heir to outgoing, program-changing linebacker Manti Te’o.

Since then, he’s been locked in a battle to not let the weight of enormous expectations keep him from soaring past them.

Smith, a U.S. Army All-American, is one of two athletes to have his number retired at Bishop Luers High School.

“I want to be better than Manti,” he says. “He’s a legend, but the ultimate goal is to be better.”

***

Smith wages his war on complacency on the second floor of a sports warehouse in Ft. Wayne’s north end. The new Athletes With Purpose headquarters, which opened in January, still smells like a freshly cracked tube of tennis balls. The open floor is carpeted with artificial turf. It eventually gives way to the concrete of a state-of-the-art weight room in the corner where Smith now spends at least four days each week.

AWP founder and president Michael Ledo has trained northern Indiana’s top football prospects, including Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert and Tony Springmann, for the past decade. Smith is the closest thing to the total package he has seen.

Smith was “a lanky pup” when he tried out for Ledo’s regional 7-on-7 team as a sophomore. In a version of the sport typically dominated by wide receivers and cornerbacks, Smith changed games by eliminating the middle of the field as a linebacker. When asked to line up against smaller slot receivers in press coverage, he made a habit of lifting them clean off the turf.

The Midwest’s best players couldn’t challenge Smith, so Ledo did. He told the pup that success in his junior year would be measured not by how many scholarship offers he stacked up, but how many he could help his teammates procure. Six members of the 15-man roster faxed national letter of intents to their future schools on the first Wednesday of February. Several more are expected to sign offers next year when they are eligible.

Jared Murphy is a 5-foot-9, 165-pound speedy slot receiver who will play at Miami (Ohio) next fall. He is the Robby Toma to Smith’s Te’o, and he gives the big defender credit for getting him looks that his own size would have otherwise kept him from getting.

“There’s no doubt about it. Every guy on our team that has a scholarship, Jaylon was a big part of it,” Murphy said. “He just loves to compete. Some of the other big-name guys wouldn’t show up [to regional events] because they knew they already had their scholarships, but Jaylon’s mentality was he knew that he was helping us everywhere we went.”

No one forecasts Smith as the mouthpiece Te’o became at Notre Dame during the past four seasons. On the field and in the locker room, he does his best work by remaining on the periphery. But his competitive drive is expected to elevate those who play around him and make him a different kind of leader.

“Do I think he's going to come in and be the vocal leader like Manti was on the field? No, I don't think so,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day. “But his actions and the way that he prepares himself and the way he plays the game, I think a lot of people will want to model after him.”

The next step is proving he can do what he does in pads. If there’s a knock on the Parade All-American’s résumé it’s that he has yet to show the strength he’ll need to match up physically with 300-pound linemen at the college level.
Smith finished his final high school game weighing less than 220 pounds. Ledo, who was once a record-setting running back at NAIA power Saint Francis, knows the power a first impression can have on the course of a career. He plans to help Smith add 15 pounds of toughness and muscle before he gets to campus.

“Our expectation,” he said, “is that they’re going to be so blown away by this kid that they’re not going to know what to do.”

***

The hero-making machine of modern sports spins faster all the time, making it nearly impossible for a budding star to blow anyone away. Of all the things Manti Te’o accomplished at Notre Dame, his most impressive feat was living up to the hype. Smith’s biggest challenge is to do the same.

He says he’s lived with that pressure since his freshman year at Bishop Luers when he started at linebacker for a state championship team. The staff of the 600-student school has seen this story before. Smith’s jersey is the second number to hang from the metaphorical rafters at Luers. The first belonged to Deshaun Thomas, a five-star hoops recruit and a McDonald’s All-American currently playing at Ohio State. From the athletic office at the center of the one-story building to the principal’s office tucked inside its front door, they know how to help keep Smith’s feet tethered to the ground.

They remind him on Friday afternoons that he should be going to the movies and hanging out at the mall during the weekend. They create projects to keep him engaged in school and giving back to the community. They ask him what he thinks of all the awards that have piled up around his feet. He responds with a straight face that he thinks nothing of them; he hasn’t accomplished anything yet.

So Smith occasionally goes to the mall on weekends. He works his shift at Burger King on Sundays. He smiles at strangers who want his signature and tries not to get jaded by the whole thing before his 18th birthday. Sometimes he slips into the student body to cheer for his classmates and disappear.

“It’s just remembering that I’m just a kid,” he said. “A regular kid looking for opportunities to be great.”

Jaylon Smith is at once a man in a kid’s world and a kid in a man’s world. He’s running at full speed to remain the same in both. Is he fast enough?

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