SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Jaylon Smith figures he began to feel comfortable four games into this season.
Smith said it was his game against Michigan State, in which he recorded four tackles but did "a great job at doing my job," got him to the point where he knew he could hang at the college level.
In terms of making a tangible impact, Smith was outstanding in wins over Arizona State (nine tackles, one forced fumble, one pass broken up) and USC (four tackles, one tackle for a loss and an interception).
"People may say the Arizona State game how I made a lot of plays, but I'm not worried about that," Smith said. "I just like to do my assignment and do my job to where we can help the team win."
If there's one thing Smith's learned since coming to campus, it's that winning isn't easy at the college level. That's a lesson he picked up pretty quickly -- when Notre Dame began preparing for Temple back in August, Smith noticed how locked in everyone around him was. Losses to Michigan and Oklahoma, no doubt, furthered that lesson.
But it's easy to forget Smith wasn't in line for a starting gig when fall camp began. He was No. 3 on the Irish dog outside linebacker depth chart, behind incumbent Danny Spond and upperclassman Ben Councell.
Spond had to end his playing career soon after camp began, and Smith beat out Councell for the starting gig, which he's held ever since. He's always had the athleticism to play at the college level, but has picked up the details and minutiae of his difficult position thanks in part to working with Spond.
Spond, who's helped coach Notre Dame's dog linebackers since ending his playing career, said Smith is not just "twice the athlete I ever was," but has had the right attitude to go with it.
"It's just fun to work with him and to see him really taking the coaching, really respect me as a former teammate and now as a coach and really just listen and wanna get better," Spond said.
While Smith may not be as concerned with it, his highlight reel is beginning to grow -- topped with Saturday's interception while defending USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor. It's been a steep learning curve, with Smith going from guarding prep players to defending one of the nation's premier wideouts. But it's been a curve Smith has handled well through seven games.
He's a pretty special player," coach Brian Kelly lauded Saturday. "Not a lot of guys like that in the country as true freshmen."