- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame wants to keep offenses guessing where Jaylon Smith will be. Opponents can rest assured, however, that he will be on the field for darn near every snap this fall.
Smith, the dog-turned-will linebacker, found himself playing inside more toward the latter half of the Irish's spring season, part of an effort to broaden his presence and account for a lack of depth among the interior linebackers. So the former five-star prospect spent much of March and April getting acclimated with seeing the game from a different view.
Whereas Smith spent his freshman campaign outside at dog linebacker in what was a 3-4 base, he now heads into his sophomore season with more inside responsibilities at will linebacker, looking to hone his skill set and develop the kind of confidence that comes with having a QB-like role on the defense.
"Watching guys like the great Manti Te'o controlling things and regulating things from inside, and that’s something I’m looking forward to doing," Smith said. "You really just have to take it in stride and just keep getting better. We’ll go back, watch film, make corrections and apply it to our football IQ."
The Fort Wayne, Ind. native is the Irish's leading returning tackler from last season, with 67 stops in 13 starts during his rookie campaign last season. He had described his role earlier in the spring in new coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme as a Sam/Mike hybrid, before making the switch roughly five practices in.
With former starting safety-turned-cornerback Matthias Farley entering the picture for nickel packages, the Irish simply did not -- and could not -- take the precocious Smith off the field. The early returns were promising.
"He has to find a comfort level in there, he has some work to do, but he shows signs of being an outstanding player there," outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott said. "Jaylon Smith has great instincts and he has a super attitude. 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. 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."
Fine-tuning said instincts will be the next step come fall camp. For now, Notre Dame sees plenty of possibilities for its prized prodigy, and he has been more than happy to take the next step for a remodeled defense.
"Every play starts with sight," Smith said. "Beginning of my career, all my life, I’ve seen the game from an outside perspective. It's really getting used to reading offensive linemen from inside-out. Just little things like that. I’ve had 14 practices and the spring game to actually get the hang of it. It’s going good."