#16 Jaylon Smith: Notre Dame Football’s Top 25 Players

Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire
Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

#16 Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, 2013-2015

Notre Dame’s most athletic linebacker of all time also ranks, along with Luther Bradley, as one of the greatest natives of Indiana to ever don the Blue and Gold. Born and raised in the Summit City of Fort Wayne, Smith was a multi-sport athlete at Bishop Luers who won the High School Butkus Award as a senior.

He was scheduled to be brought along gradually in 2013, backing up Danny Spond at “Dog” OLB in Bob Diaco’s 3-4. But Spond retired from football due to concussions and Diaco removed Smith from the incubator. He quickly passed Ben Councell and was named a starter in the 2013 season opener. He never looked back and started all 39 games in his Notre Dame career.

October 22, 2013

It was a critical moment against USC. Tommy Rees had been knocked out of the game and Andrew Hendrix was expected to struggle. The “D” of ND would have to win the game or the Trojans would leave with a victory.

Cody Kessler came out for blood on the first series of the second Half, but Jaylon Smith executed what some say is the greatest defensive play in Notre Dame Stadium history, nosing out Ross Browner’s spectacular cross-field pursuit and tackle of Tony Dorsett in the ’76 opener.

It comprised every aspect of Smith’s play: discipline, intelligence, speed, quickness and focus. The meager prose of the stat sheet says that Smith made an interception; but the epic poetry of the play was Smith’s incredible drop to be in a position to snag the ball. Notre Dame went on to win 14-10, pitching a second half shutout.

Kelly said of the play: “A terrific play. He was “on body.” He felt the route by the tight end and essentially, even though he was in zone, played it as if it was man-to-man. That’s “feel.” You don’t teach those things.”

Opposing coaches were now on notice about the Notre Dame phenom, and started avoiding him.

Thus, despite a career total of 292 tackles, 24.5 for loss and 5 sacks, statistics, as with many of Notre Dame’s greats, understate the total impact of Jaylon Smith.

A Man For All Seasons

Having taken over for a great pass defender like Spond, Smith would have been expected to yield to a nickel back as a true frosh. But after the Kessler interception he remained on the field in passing downs.

As a sophomore Smith put on 15 pounds of muscle and moved to OLB as Brian Van Gorder was converting Diaco’s 3-4 to an attacking 4-3. He increased his tackles from 67 to 111, a number that understates his value. Jaylon Smith’s value added as a linebacker can only be measured if you could quantify the portion of the field that was avoided because he was on it.

And the Option? Smith was the cornerstone of the defense with architecture by Bob Elliott, engineering by Brian Van Gorder which eviscerated the vaunted options of Georgia Tech and Navy in 2015. Smith intimidated the quarterbacks into calling time outs and vexed the best laid plans of mice, men, Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatololo.

As a Junior, Captain Smith led the defense with 114 tackles and won the Butkus Award as a collegian, matching the Butkus Award he won as a High School Senior.   .

As if we were blinded by the sun, Smith’s dazzling athleticism blinded us to how how hard he worked and his feel for the game.   He was fast, and played fast, but offenses were very slow for him.

We may not another like him pass this way again.

#16) Jaylon Smith, LB 2013-2015
#17) Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, ALL PURPOSE, 1988-1990
#18) Tom Clements, Quarterback, 1972-1974
#19) Chris Zorich, Nose Tackle, 1988-1990
#20) Aaron Taylor, Guard/Tackle, 1990-1993
#21) Nick Buoniconti, Linebacker/Guard, 1958-1961
#22) Ken MacAfee, Tight End, 1974-1977
#23) Bill “Moose” Fischer, Left Guard, 1945-1948
#24) Todd Lyght, Cornerback, 1987-1990
#25) Louis “Red” Salmon, Fullback, 1900-1903






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  1. Jaylon smith , manti teo , bob golic, michael stonebreaker, greg collins, bob crable was my favorite broke hershel walkers facemask with a brutal hit in sugar bowl blocked mich fg in79 not legal now how he did it

  2. duranko,

    It’s a tough list to put together for sure. Everyone will most likely agree with your Top 25 but when you start getting down to these numbers now, there are likely going to be different opinions…Lebron or Michael? :)

    Just seeing highlights of players that I never actually watched makes it really hard for me to understand the full impact they had to the team. I can see why you put Jaylon where you did. While it was clearly visible to everyone that he had a huge impact to the team during his time here, he only played 3 years and he doesn’t have the same kind of numbers some of the other guys I’m expecting to be ranked a bit higher than him had, e.g. Manti. That’s what we have to remember too is what impact did these guys have as an ND player alone, not just how truly good they are. In my opinion, Jaylon is a better LB than Manti as far as all of the tools he possesses. But there is no question Manti had a better ND career than Jaylon.

    Looking forward to seeing the rest of your list!!

  3. Voila, Chris!

    With both Ismail and Smith we have objections that they ought have been rated higher.

    I’m not taking the hit. ND has too many great players!

  4. Definitely going to miss Jaylon. Kid was a freakin animal out there.

    I still hold true to my opinion that we didn’t take advantage of him as a blitzer. Only having 5 career sacks proves my point. When you have an LB that fast, that strong, and that knowledgeable of the game, turn him loose!!! We should have been seeing him killing opposing QBs like he did to the Texas QB last year.

    In my time of watching ND players through their careers (late 90s and on), Jaylon would definitely be ranked much higher for me. I know I’m probably going to start seeing some names on here of guys that I didn’t get to see play that are ranked higher that had huge impacts as players at ND but Jaylon will always be top 3 in my list.

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