Dec. 16, 2015

By Curt Rallo

Former University of Notre Dame linebacker Danny Spond records Fighting Irish football games, and then re-watches them.

“It drives my wife absolutely insane,” laughs Spond, who played for Notre Dame as a linebacker until persistent migraine headaches ended his career after the 2012 season.

“I go back and watch the defense. I’ll record the game and watch the defense and rewind it after every play. I’ll see a mistake here and mistake there. It takes me 45 minutes to go through one drive, and then I fast forward through the offense and watch the defense again.”

Spond, who is in private business now, developed a coach’s laser vision for film breakdown when he was mentoring current Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith when Smith was a freshman. What Spond sees when he watches Irish games now is an athlete who has emerged as a difference-making linebacker.

“When I watch Jaylon, there are a lot of things that I’ve noticed that Jaylon has developed, such as knowing how to properly line up on your coverage,” Spond says. “It seems like he has a maturity and a football IQ to set himself up for success at the next level.

“The biggest thing sometimes for guys who don’t have that football IQ, is they’re paralyzed on the field — they’ll miss tackles, they’re hesitant, they’ll be a step behind the offensive player because they weren’t properly aligned,” Spond says. “Jaylon always seems to be two steps ahead. A lot of that has to do with how fast he his, but it also has to do with the way he’s prepared, and where his football IQ has taken him.”

Smith, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior, has already chiseled out a place in the pantheon of Irish football greats. An All-American, who has a hard-hitting legacy on the field and in the Irish record books, credits Spond and Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, as well as the football culture established by Irish head coach Brian Kelly, with helping him hone his craft to an elite status.

“The resources at Notre Dame are incredible to help prepare a player for the next level,” Smith says. “My football IQ has increased tremendously. I’m not just a freak athlete on the field. I have an understanding, conceptually, of the game of football. I became more of a student of the game.

“When I started as a freshman, I was just going off of natural athletic ability,” Smith says. “Danny (Spond) obviously knew that I wanted to achieve greatness. He knew the outside linebacker position. He taught it to me. I was the perfect skill set and body set for that position. He taught me the ins and outs of the position.

“Danny helped me learn all about college football, the ebbs and flows. It was really selfless of him. He’s a great guy. He was like a mentor to me. He made sure that I had everything that I needed. It’s something that you can definitely count on when you come to a place like Notre Dame, someone of Danny Spond’s character looking after you.”

Kelly made it clear before the season started how valuable Smith is to the Irish.

“Jaylon Smith is the mainstay of our defense,” Kelly says. “He is an essential figure in what we do. He’s all over the field for us defensively, and we’ll make sure that we move him around to put him in a position for him to impact what we do defensively. He’s no longer somebody that just ties down one position. He can play multiple positions on our defense, and we think he’s one of the best football players in the country.”

VanGorder’s system has built Smith into a linebacker who can take advantage of exceptional athletic talent. Smith says that VanGorder’s teachings help take players to another level, to be a step ahead of the opposition.

“From a football standpoint, Coach VanGorder has helped me mature on the field,” Smith says. “He’s seen the qualities that I have. I’m a sponge, soaking everything in. The mark of greatness is consistency, and that’s something that really stuck with me.”

Smith made an immediate impact when he arrived on the Irish campus after he helped the Fort Wayne Bishop Luers High School football team hoist state championship trophies in each of his four seasons there.

“Jaylon’s freshman year, his first practice, he was on the other side of the field,” says Irish defensive lineman Romeo Okwara. “He chased down the ball on the opposite side. It was so fast. I had no idea how he got to the ball carrier. It was one of those things that made you say, ‘wow,’ that guy’s special.”

Irish defensive back KeiVarae Russell said that the amazing plays are still coming from Smith.

“In the Texas game (the 2015 season opener), that open-field tackle of the quarterback,” Russell marvels. “When Jaylon made that play ââ’¬¦ open space ââ’¬¦ the quarterback is trying to cut back ââ’¬¦ and Jaylon ran through the guy. He’s a freak. I’m just glad he’s on my side.”

Smith says that he realized early on that he could be a force in college football.

“My freshman year, it was the sixth game of the season,” Smith says. “We were playing Arizona State in the Shamrock Series game in Dallas, Texas. I led the team with 11 tackles, two and half tackles for losses and a forced fumble. After I made a couple of plays early, it stuck with me.

“It was like a light bulb went off. It’s football. You’ve been playing since you were seven years old. In that moment, it was just a matter of letting loose, and playing the game that I know.”

Regarded by a host of college football experts as the best linebacker in the nation, Smith can torment enemy quarterbacks with a bone-jarring blitz, but has the exceptional instincts and sprinter’s speed to handle coverage. The versatility that Smith offers as a linebacker gives the Irish a decided advantage, and it gives Irish opponents a match-up nightmare.

Although his exceptional physical ability commands attention, Smith’s character and leadership have been just as vital in Notre Dame’s quest for a championship.

Smith emerged as a leader for the Irish as a sophomore during a 2014 season in which the Irish defense was riddled with injuries. Those leadership skills were recognized when Smith was given the rare distinction of being named a Notre Dame football captain as a junior.

“From a leadership role, being able to relate to any group in the locker room, has been important,” Smith says. “I think guys feel like they can come to me. Being named a captain, being viewed as a leader, I’ve been able to stay true to myself, and not be someone that I’m not. That’s something that I’m most proud of.

“I’m proud of doing things the right way, and living with the decisions that I’ve made. I have great support with family and mentors. It’s all about taking everything in stride and trying to be the best you can be.”

Smith loves the national championship caliber that the 2015 Irish have honed.

“I love the camaraderie that we have,” Smith says. “Having a team where we’re all really bought in to what we’re trying to accomplish is something that I’m thankful to be a part of.

“Football is the greatest team sport. No matter the talent that you have, the skill set, it’s still a team game. It’s 11 guys on the field, not one-man football. Ten guys can be doing everything right, and one guy could mess up, and there you go. It’s unique. The more that you have an understand of the game, I think the more fun that you have.”

Okwara says that Smith establishes an important tone for the Irish, on the field and off.

“Jaylon is one of those guys who each and every day, he’s going to come to work and give you his best,” Okwara says. “You don’t have to tell him what to do. He’s always on top of it. He treats it like he’s a pro. He’s always that guy you can count on when he’s on the field.

“It’s been great for the younger guys to be around him, seeing what it’s like to be a pro. Jaylon does a lot of good things for this team, especially leadership. The younger guys see that, and they look up to him.”

Smith’s persona has been vital for the Irish this season. Russell says that Smith is an amazing individual who has the character Notre Dame strives to help its students develop.

“Jaylon is a special person,” Russell says. “He’s a genuine dude. You’re going to get the same person, each and every day. He’s a relentless worker on the field and off the field. He’s calm and cool, and he brings a persona to the group that welcomes you. No matter who you are, he welcomes you. You feel comfortable around him. You always know you’re going to get his best.”

Smith says that he values the life lessons learned through his Notre Dame experience.

“My time at Notre Dame has been everything I dreamed of when I first started getting recruited,” Smith says. “I understood what I was getting myself into. I expected things to be this way, and it’s played out very well. I’m honored to be here.

“Notre Dame challenges you off the field, in your academics,” Smith continues. “You’re trying to compete with the regular students here, who are very intelligent, and they expect your best. Off the field, just becoming a man, with things like time management, having an opportunity to make sure that you’re very detailed in your work, making sure that you’re preparing the right way, and, obviously, on the field, playing at the highest level, those are just a few of things I’ve learned at Notre Dame.

“It’s just a blessing to be at Notre Dame.”