SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It took a bad break for Jaylon Smith to get his big break, and so far he feels he's taken advantage of it.
Smith, rated as the No. 3 overall player in the recruiting class of 2013, entered preseason camp third on Notre Dame's "dog" outside linebacker depth chart, behind incumbent starter Danny Spond and junior Ben Councell.
But Spond was forced to end his playing career due to hemiplagic migraines, and Smith out-played Councell to move into a Week 1 starting role.
"My first thoughts were to pray for Danny and hope that he be safe," Smith said of when he learned of Spond's decision. "Getting back out there, he's been here for four years, his senior year — and really just looking forward to learning from him. And even though he's not on that field, he's still been a great influence in my life, and I'll continue to learn from him."
Over the course of his time with the media on Wednesday — the first time Notre Dame made him available to the media — he repeatedly credited Spond with playing a key role in his development. Through four games, Smith has done plenty of things right, largely due to the elite athleticism he possesses.
Smith's still learning the "dog" position, which requires him to do a little of everything — pass rush, pass coverage, run coverage, etc. — and knows that, though just four games, he hasn't come close to hitting his ceiling yet.
"I definitely think there's room for improvement. I'm not satisfied at all," Smith said. "I haven't made too many errors, but at the same time there's a lot that I can do as far as cleaning up my game."
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In terms of errors, that's an aspect of Smith's game coach Brian Kelly lauded earlier this year, saying the linebacker rarely makes the same mistake twice. Safety Matthias Farley has similarly liked what he's seen from Smith.
"It's impressive that he could come in and do all the things that he's done as a freshman," Farley said. "He's a very mature guy, a very physically mature guy, so I think he's got a lot more comfortable in his role throughout the last couple weeks and he's continued to improve each and every week.
"The sky's the limit for him. He's obviously playing very well."
The next challenge for Smith might be the greatest he and the Irish defense have faced this year — moreso than Devin Gardner and the Michigan attack. Blake Bell, Oklahoma's 6-foot-6, 252-pound quarterback who threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns his last time out, comes to South Bend on Saturday armed with an explosive arsenal of weapons, running the kind of offense that Bob Stoops has built a career on for the last 14 years.
Smith said he's not preparing any differently for Bell than he would for any other quarterback, outside of having a "different mindset with a 255-pound guy." But for a freshman playing in just his third-ever home game, the atmosphere could be the biggest hurdle for him to clear on Saturday.
Smith said he's still getting used to playing in front of 81,000 fans, and the Oklahoma game atmosphere promises to be one of the best this year at Notre Dame Stadium.
Still, Farley doesn't feel like he or any of his other defensive players will have to keep Smith from jumping out of his shoes on Saturday.
"I don't think anybody has to calm him down," Farley said. "He's comfortable with what he's doing, he knows what he's supposed to do and he can just go out and play."