Notre Dame sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith has Notre Dame fans giddy with excitement over what he will add to the 2014 Fighting Irish defense after an impressive rookie campaign. The college football media is taking notice too. Phil Steele, the grandfather of pre-season college previews, tabbed Smith as a pre-season 2nd team All-American.
Smith was thrust into the starting lineup as a freshman in 2013 after the abrupt ending of Danny Spond’s career due to chronic migraines last August. While he took some time to adjust to the college game, Smith’s athleticism was on full display from day one. It was clear he was the most athletic linebacker to put on an Irish jersey in years and as the season wore on Smith was more than just an athlete for the Irish defense – he became a difference maker.
Against USC and Arizona State in back to back weeks Smith officially had his coming out. Against the Trojans, Smith notched the first interception of his career in Notre Dame’s narrow victory in South Bend. The week before, Smith was all over the field in Jerry World against the Sun Devils with 9 tackles, 1 for loss, and the first forced fumble of his career.
By the 8th game of Smith’s freshman season, he had recorded a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and an interception. It took Manti Te’o 39 career games before he was on the scoreboard in each of those statistical categories.
Overall, Jaylon Smith finished 3rd on the Notre Dame defense with 67 tackles including a career best 11 against Pittsburgh. Those 67 tackles were good enough for the 3rd most by a freshman linebacker in Notre Dame history. Smith showed that while he was advanced physically, he was also advanced mentally as well. Against BYU, Smith honored the man whose starting position he assumed in the summer by wearing Danny Spond’s #13 on Senior Day.
As Notre Dame heads into the 2014 season with a new defense under the guidance of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGroder, Smith will be the focal point of the Irish defense. VanGorder experimented with Smith as the MIKE linebacker throughout the spring and according to Brian Kelly, Smith will be playing all over the field so that he does not find himself standing on the sidelines much at all when the opposition has the football.
Ben Koyack lands on 3rd Team
Jaylon Smith wasn’t the only Golden Domer to be named to one of Steele’s All-American teams. Smith was joined by one teammate that he will be sharing the field with and another he’ll be squaring off against often in practice. Senior tight end Ben Koyack found himself on Steele’s 3rd team. While it’s no surprise for a Notre Dame tight end to be named to a pre-season All-American list, it is surprising to see Koyack here after the way his career began.
Koyack came to Notre Dame as a highly touted prep tight end, but struggled mightily over his first two seasons gaining very sparse playing time along the way. As Notre Dame’s #2 right end in 2013, however, Koyack, began to make his mark. He only hauled in 10 passes as a junior, but three of them went for touchdowns.
Before the early departure of Troy Niklas for the NFL, Koyack would have had a tough time getting too many more looks in 2014, but with Niklas preparing for his rookie season with the Arizona Cardinals, Koyack has been thrust into the starting lineup and looks poised to have a big season.
Keivarae Russell tabbed 4th Team All-American
The third, and last member of the Fighting Irish, on Steele’s pre-season list is defensive back Keivarae Russell. The converted wide receiver turned shut down corner for the Notre Dame defense comes into the 2014 season with a chance to conjure up memories of Shane Walton’s 2002 season that ended up earning the converted soccer player consensus All-American honors.
Of the trio of Domers on Steele’s list, Russell has the most potential to gain higher honors. For Smith and Koyack, their designations represent best case scenario situations. Russell on the other hand has a chance to be one of the best corners in the country in 2014.
In 2013 Russell recorded just one interception, but part of the reason for that was because opposing offenses simply didn’t throw Russell’s way very often. After converting to corner from wide receiver as a freshman in 2012 and earning Freshman All-American honors while starting all 13 games of the ’12 season, Russell started to gain more confidence and familiarity at the corner position in 2013. By the end of the season, offenses simply weren’t looking his way.
As Russell enters his third year on defense, he will be one of the leaders of the Irish defense with 26 career starts already under his belt. Having 5th year transfer Cody Riggs lining up in the backfield with him should only help Russell continue the upward progression we saw from him throughout his sophomore season.