It's been that long since Notre Dame'sdefense featured a linebacker that remotely reminds me of Fort Wayne Bishop Luers senior Jaylon Smith. And that former star's recruiting profile wasn't in the same stratosphere as Smith's is today.
2002 Butkus finalist and All-American inside linebacker Courtney Watson possessed many of Smith's attributes during his time with the Irish program and his early NFL days. Cat-quick as a former high school running back, Watson had the hands, coordination, and gait of an offensive player coupled with the toughness and guile of a front seven defender.
The end result was a dominant senior season on Notre Dame's last top tier defense. Watson's '02 campaign was the best for a 'backer at the program over the last 15-plus seasons. (He returned in 2003 and played well before suffering a knee injury and was subsequently selected in the 2nd Round of the 2004 NFL Draft.)
Jaylon Smith is two inches taller but just 10 pounds lighter than was Watson as a collegiate senior. He has the frame to add weight/strength, and possesses a greater wingspan to boot. While Watson excelled inside, he would have been an ideal, if not slightly "*short" Dog linebacker in the present-day Irish scheme.
For Irish fans that date back to the mid-late 90s, versatile outside linebacker and top-rated recruit Kory Minor is another apt point of comparison. But this isn't about Minor or Watson or any stars that preceded them, it's about Smith, the most important recruit on Notre Dame's board and one of the top potential impact defenders in the nation.
Smith shows none of the stiffness in his hips and hands that has accompanied many of the linebacker recruits who've flocked to South Bend over the last 10 seasons. Its this natural athleticism that could separate him from the pack as his college career progresses and knowledge of the game grows.
Smith's change of direction is uncanny, as is his burst to the football after diagnosing the play. He can turn and run, re-direct receivers' routes with his strength and wingspan, and already accepts the challenge of battling would-be pass-catchers for the ball in the air. In short, he's the ideal Dog linebacker in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's scheme, though its illogical to think Smith will play just one linebacker position through his Irish career.
In terms of his freshman season slotting, Smith enters the program with the following projected depth chart (numbers in parenthesis indicate eligibility remaining starting in 2013, Smith's freshman year):
Cat Linebacker: Prince Shembo (1) Ishaq Williams (2); Romeo Okwara (4/5)
Dog Linebacker: Danny Spond (1) and Ben Councell (3). 2012 incoming freshmen Elijah Shumate and Nick Baratti could fill a hybrid S/Dog role as well.
Mike Linebacker: Jarrett Grace (3); Kendall Moore (2)
Will Linebacker: Dan Fox (5th year), Carlo Calabrese (5th year), Anthony Rabasa (3) and Justin Utupo (2)
*2013 verbal pledge Jacob Matuska is slated for DE/OLB duty. As a "program player" he'll likely develop into a set role at either, or possibly blocking tight end, a few seasons down the line. Rabasa was moved inside as a 2011 freshman but seemed to shift to the Cat role during the spring session, likely as a result of an injury to Prince Shembo.
Difference MakerThere's no such thing as a "can't miss" recruit. And i'm not sure the ever-popular "must get" exists, either. Smith will have to learn a much more taxing defensive playbook. He'll get hit, chipped, leveled, and take cheat shots from far more physical and talented players next August and over the four years that follow than he's encountered to date. He'll encounter offensive linemen that know how to move their feet and set in pass protection and pulling guards that eat 225-pound linebackers for lunch.
But Smith is football player + athlete, and that's a lethal combination at linebacker.
Better prospects than Smith have failed to star or even start at the college level. But I made the following statement to colleagues nonetheless: Smith would start for the Irish in the home opener vs. Purdue if he joined the team this summer.
He wouldn't hold up of course, not at 17-years-old for four months vs. college men, but he'd win the job. It's both a massive compliment to Smith and a sobering observation for the current Dog competitors, a group that needs safety Jamoris Slaughter to do their heavy lifting.
Back to reality: Smith has a chance to win the Dog starting job for 2013, though the untested Irish currently competing at that position will be further in their development a year from today. And as noted above, Smith will likely play more than one linebacker position in college, but Dog is the perfect place to start what should be an exciting collegiate career.
Because of the dearth of high school prospects that can attend Notre Dame and ably fill the Dog linebacker role, at least at a BCS Bowl level, I'm on the record saying the Dog position could have a short shelf life in South Bend.
Smith, however, is one such player. And now he's Irish.
Diaco has found his difference maker. Dog, Cat, or anywhere else he wants to put a linebacker that might be capable of one day doing it all.