Notre Dame's defense lost five of its regular front-seven starters from 2013 as well as its coordinator, but that mass exodus opened the door for Jaylon Smith to make his mark.
As was the case all spring, Notre Dame moved Jaylon Smith around in last weekend's Blue-Gold game, shifting him to inside linebacker in an effort to maximize his impact. After spending a year solely as an outside linebacker, Smith will play all over the field in a far greater role than he had his freshman year this coming fall.
Part of the reason for the increased responsibilities is need -- Notre Dame, especially this spring (without four-star incoming freshman Nyles Morgan), is thin at inside linebacker. Another reason is necessity, since Matthias Farley's presence replacing the Sam linebacker in nickel packages would bump Smith off the field without a move inside to Will.
And then there's the biggest reason: Smith has the talent and intelligence to handle working both inside and outside.
"We felt (inside linebacker) was more of an impactful position," coach Brian Kelly said. "… He's not going to be out of much action where we've got him at right now."
Notre Dame resisted the lure of moving Smith inside last fall, aiming to not put too much on the true freshman's plate so early into his career. But Smith finished fourth on the team in tackles and made a handful of impressive plays in pass coverage, flashing the kind of five-star ability that made him a top-five recruit in the class of 2013.
Moving Smith inside for spells disrupted his comfort level in the spring, but his coaches raved about his attitude toward the new challenge.
"He came here as a five-star recruit, the best in the country, and you’d never really know it. He was like a sponge, here to learn," outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott said. "He was a quick study. Now he’s doing the same thing here. He’s not any different than he was before he had that year. He’s still humble and works it, doesn’t have all the answers, smart and quick study and still has those wonderful instincts."
Playing inside also helps allow Smith the opportunity to help fill the leadership void on Notre Dame's defense, despite his underclassman status. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder challenged Smith this spring to be more of a vocal leader, though he recognizes that's something that'll probably come naturally as Smith grows more comfortable in his role.
"He's a great role model, great example," VanGorder said. "He plays hard, it's important to him, all those things he's doing well. But we've gotta get him more verbal moving forward."
Notre Dame didn't show a whole lot with Smith and the rest of its defense last Saturday, though future opponents certainly will note Smith's movement around the field. Still, even with Michigan, Stanford, Florida State and the like having that knowledge, the goal of shifting Smith inside and outside is to keep him unpredictable for opposing offenses this fall.
And Smith -- who said he enjoyed watching Manti Te'o command the Irish defense from his perch at inside linebacker -- is embracing the opportunity.
"When I committed here, I committed to doing anything that will help the team win," Smith said. "I’ll stick to that. I’m a team-first player. I’m not worried about myself and what I can do to contribute to the team. I really just want to do whatever it takes to help our team win."