The 6'2" 230-pound outside linebacker readied for run action to his side -- the wide side of Notre Dame's defense. As USC quarterback Cody Kessler instead dropped to pass, Jaylon Smith, starting the seventh game of his college career, immediately engaged the eligible receiver to his side of the formation, Trojans tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.
When the latter remained in-line to block, Smith wheeled and sprinted to a vacated area behind him, a swath of sod approximately 25 yards wide and 15 deep he was likewise assigned to cover. Less than two seconds later, the first interception -- doubtless not the last -- of the rookie's collegiate career followed.
Such is life for the field-side outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's defense. Stop the run, cover your man, find a potential free runner in your zone -- all on the same play. Repeat.
"Really it clicked because I know I have to look for deep crossers," said Smith of his late break into the open flat. "I had no threat coming out with the tight end blocking; just turn and run."
He did, and in the process found USC sophomore star Nelson Aghlor crossing open. Smith met Agholor at the point of Kessler's throw, boxed out the former 5-star Notre Dame prospect, and secured the turnover.
"The intended receiver was of note to media and fans alike. Smith was indifferent. "I was really just happy we made the turnover and got the ball back. He's a great player though. Nelson's a great player," Smith said.
That's no high school out there
The six-word subhead above is a quote by current Irish senior Andrew Hendrix. The Irish triggerman had just completed his first Blue Gold Game outing and had taken a few shots from a teammate, the since-transferred Aaron Lynch.
Hendrix's impression of the 6'5" 265-pound dynamo bearing down on him? "That's no high school out there."
It's a reality most prep stars encounter at the college level. Jaylon Smith is no exception.
"I've learned it's hard to win in college. It's very hard," said Smith when asked what he's learned about himself at Notre Dame. "You can't take a play off. Really the first week we started planning for Temple. Just how focused in everyone is and what goes into it. Everyone bought in and was focused on the task. The veterans preached they were going to give us a battle. And it showed."
Lauded that day for his coverage skills by Owls head coach Matt Rhule, Smith's improvement has shown steadily since.
"People are actually trying to account for him, because he's a difficult guy to block," said head coach Brian Kelly of Smith following the latter's standout statistical effort vs. Arizona State weeks later. "He's got great speed. You saw him and his ability to track down (quarterback Taylor) Kelly in the open field. He's a very important player now within our defense."
Smith finished with nine tackles, a forced fumble, a pass breakup, and 1.5 stops for loss vs. the Sun Devils. He followed that effort one game later vs. rival USC with four stops, another for loss, and the aforementioned pick of Kessler.
"People may say about the Arizona State game how I made a lot of plays, but I'm not worried about that," Smith said, insinuating it might not have been his best graded effort according to the coaching staff. "I'm worried about doing my assignment."
That assignment was carried out to perfection on his interception last Saturday. Could Smith have made such a play weeks prior?
"I would have recognized it," he said of the requirement to sprint back to the flat, "but I would have been a little hesitant to actually get back there.
"We practice on it. It came about in the game and I performed it."
And it won't be the last time.