Like Manti Te'o, Kyle Rudolph, Jimmy Clausen, and countless other top-ranked prospects before him, the first four games of Jaylon Smith's college career bared little resemblance to his previous experiences on the gridiron.
There were opponents that played faster. Opponents that were stronger. Opponents that understood the game better. Most glaring among the changes was the stark reality that there were better players on the football field than the nation's No. 1 ranked incoming outside linebacker for 2013.
Over the next three, perhaps next two seasons, Smith will close most of those gaps. Not all of them, that's not the reality of college football. But the athletically-blessed, dedicated Smith will likely see more improvement in his overall game than 99 percent of his 2013 rookie brethren.
What Notre Dame needs this week, or at least on Saturday from Smith, is his best to date.
"It's been a humbling experience," said Smith of his assimilation to the college game. “I have a long way to go, but I think I’m on the right track. I’m really just worried about tomorrow, just getting out on the field and continuing to stay healthy.
"Take it day-by-day and continue to get better."
He's not alone. A collection of about 43 regular contributors -- at least 19 on the defensive side of scrimmage -- have to get better, too. Better today, better Saturday, better as the weeks progress. Their first chance to get back into BCS Bowl contention is on tap, and it's not only the toughest test to date, but likely until Thanksgiving weekend.
Notre Dame's first step back to national contention starts Saturday vs. the Sooners.
"I would say they're the best, definitely," said Bennett Jackson when asked if Oklahoma's perimeter weapons are the best his defense has faced this fall. "They're a group of smaller, quick guys. They get in space and use their athleticism. We have to get down and make tackles. If you're going to miss, they're going to expose you. We have to get our guys in position and have guys running to the ball."
Smith will play a key role in that. As the defense's Drop (Dog) linebacker, the 6'2" 230-pounder will be asked to track slot receivers, runners from the backfield, tight ends, and polished pass receivers in short space -- all-the-while first ensuring to keep secure the wide side edge of Bob Diaco's defense.
"The speed of the game is something every freshman has to pick up on," Smith said. "I definitely excel there (his speed). I obviously have a long way before I reach my full potential. But just being able to cover and to attack the run is something that the Dog position requires. I think I’ve done fairly well."
Smith attributes his early successes to his predecessor, 2012 standout Danny Spond. Forced to retire entering his senior season due to a migraine-related condition, Spond has mentored Smith on the nuances of the position.
"Danny has been wonderful. He mastered the position I’m playing and he’s given me great advice," Smith said. "I really appreciate him being around and learning from him every day. Teaching me the ins and outs, learning to read run and pass, it's helped me improve my game. There's been mistakes but it's all about the next play. What are you going to do the next play? As the game evolves, forget about mistakes and move on."
Asked what the biggest change is between his position in Notre Dame's defense and his high school days, Smith noted immediately, "We didn’t have to deal with the speed and the physical power of the offensive linemen. I wasn’t going against 300-pound linemen every week in high school.”
Head of Steam
If Notre Dame's defensive ends do their jobs, Smith won't have to contend with 300-pound tackles often. He will, however, likely find himself this Saturday between the first down chains and a bruising runner, Sooners quarterback, Blake Bell.
"It's just coming to balance. Making that transition from speed to power," said Smith of tackling Oklahoma's 252-pound triggerman. "It's going to be a challenge, but I have support. (Mike linebacker) Jarrett Grace coming from the inside. I'm looking forward to the opportunity.
"Obviously there's a different mindset with a 255-pound guy, but that's how we practice as linebackers. Stay low, attack quick. Attack and bounce."
A Notre Dame pledge prior to the start of the team's 2012 championship run, Smith long envisioned the first time he'd don the blue and gold.
“Just tapping that sign,” he said of his final steps before taking the playing field. “It just lets me know and reminds everyone to Play like a Champion Today."
“I’m really just honored to have that privilege."