Monday, June 4, 2012

Smith Commitment Bolsters Already-Strong 2013 Irish Class

Jaylon Smith
In today's college football world, it seems like the biggest and brightest of the stars overwhelmingly head off to schools that operate with the mantra that if you aren't cheating, you aren't trying. College football fans see it time and time again. Whether it's Urban Meyer telling recruits that God would want Meyer to be the recruit's coach, Nick Saban oversigning recruits and simply cutting the ones he didn't want, or the general lack of academic integrity by most of the schools in the SEC and other power house programs, the fact is that a large portion of the highest level of talented prospects head to those programs. Sure, programs like Michigan and Notre Dame, among others, have landed great prospects while retaining both academic and ethical integrity, but in this day and age, it's only natural for an elite prospect to see the easy road at one of the aforementioned schools and go down that path. There's a reason the SEC has been dominating college football for the better part of the last decade.

So when consensus top LB Jaylon Smith, who's rated as the number 4 overall player in the country by Rivals, the number 7 overall player in the country by 24/7, and the number 17 overall player in the country by Scout, it gets you excited about as an Irish fan. And sure, we get excited because he's an extraordinarily elite recruit who is arguably a bigger prospect than Manti Te'o was (more on that later), and thus the biggest commitment since Jimmy Clausen (who was the number 1 player overall in his class). But more than that, it's the reasons why Smith chose the Irish. Watch this video to see why:

Now, Jaylon in that video boils his decision to attend Notre Dame down to a few characteristics. First, he said, was that "Notre Dame wasn't for everyone." In this, he's entirely correct. In order for a recruit to come in and make a name for himself at Notre Dame, he has to accept and embrace both the challenge of living up to the lofty football tradition, but more importantly the commitment to academics. Smith talks about it as a decision for the rest of your life. And that's right - the whole point to college is to set yourself up for life. Most of the schools that recruited Jaylon pitched to him his role on the football field, the multiple national championships he most assuredly would bring to that particular school, and his automatic future in the NFL. But this couldn't be further from the truth. We as fans often get caught up in the star power of college football, and subsequently the NFL, but the fact remains that for the VAST majority of college football players, their careers are over the day they graduate. For Smith, choosing Notre Dame came down to the fact that they graduate 99% of their African-American athletes, and the value of the investment in a Notre Dame degree operates as the most secure insurance policy barring, god forbid, any injury.

Smith and Kelly on a recent visit
Just as important is Smith's assertion that he chose Notre Dame because it's "family." He couches this statement with the philosophy that he was sick of all the tactics that other coaches use to recruit, and that he was familiar with the negative aspects of the recruiting business from when his older brother, Rod, was going through it a few years ago (Rod Smith plays for Urban Meyer at Ohio State). Not only does this show a maturity in Jaylon beyond his years, but it gives hope to fans of upstanding programs that the elite prospects of the world can see beyond the smokescreen of college recruiting. They can recognize that these coaches use these kids for their own advantage and will discard them later without thinking twice about it (see Saban, Nick). It's also good to see Smith completely close his recruitment after his commitment, saying he won't listen to other coaches. This is a striking departure from the recent trend of prima donna recruits who dance back and forth between a commitment, visiting other schools, and reneging on their word to attend other schools (see Greenberry, Deontay and Darby, Ronald). It makes me beyond excited to have Smith in the fold.

Even better, Jaylon makes it "cool" again to come to Notre Dame in an era where perception is reality in college football recruiting. This concept is why you see recruits go to Oregon because of their jerseys, go to USC because of the flash, and go to SEC schools because of the perceived notion that it's an automatic ticket to NFL paychecks. Smith, and the rest of the "Irish Mob" class of 2013, are going to make the tradition of Notre Dame "cool" again. In fact, most of Brian Kelly's recruiting classes at Notre Dame, beginning with the tail end of 2010, have included several players that recognize the challenges and differences at Notre Dame and strive to change them. The current roster is riddled with players who have come to Notre Dame even though the program has not seen sustained success in most of their lifetimes. Smith is no different in that regard, but his elite status instantly puts him at the forefront of an outstanding 2013 class that is comprised of the same kind of kids. A quick look at the 2013 class, with Smith, shows the makings of a class that can capitalize on the great foundations laid in the previous two classes to really get Notre Dame back on the map. All of these kids, especially QB Malik Zaire, have taken it upon themselves to market the prospects of turning Notre Dame around to prospective recruits. Smith is no different, as he's already spoken about reaching out to other elite recruits in an attempt to persuade them to join him at Notre Dame.

Smith has some big shoes to fill
It is for these reasons that I wonder if Smith is a bigger commitment than Manti Te'o. I hesitate to make the comparison because I see what Manti has done in his three years at Notre Dame. I see the leader he has become, and I've seen him turn down a shot at the first round in the draft because he watched the 2011 Senior highlight film and came back for his senior year, stating that there was no amount of money in the world that could make up for the memories he wouldn't get as a senior at Notre Dame. But here, we're merely comparing their status as prospects. Yes, Jaylon is rated higher than Manti was, but Manti was rated 12th overall, only 8 spots lower than Jaylon. For me, it's tough, but I'm going to go with Te'o for now. Manti chose Notre Dame over USC in a signing day shocker at a time where it was also not "cool" to attend Notre Dame. That year, the Irish went 7-6 with a win in the Hawaii bowl. USC went 12-1 and were Rose Bowl champs. Combine that with the recent success of the USC program, and it was absolutely insane that Te'o chose Notre Dame. Now, if Smith's commitment ushers in a watershed movement for the rest of the 2013 class that culminates in more elite prospects choosing Notre Dame, I reserve the right to change my mind. And really, what's the point? They're both insanely good prospects who chose Notre Dame.

All of this talk doesn't even approach the qualities Smith brings to the football field. Quite simply, he is an electric player who could start from the day he steps on campus. At 6'3, 220 pounds with blazing 4.4 speed and ridiculous athleticism, Smith plays all over the field for his high school team. He drops into coverage, he plays LB, he rushes the passer, and he gets lots of carries at RB. And he does each of these exceptionally well. In several camps this offseason, Jaylon has dominated opposing offensive linemen rushing the passer, has excelled at linebacker (where he'll slot in for Notre Dame), and has even dropped into coverage as a hybrid defensive back, shutting down great opposing receivers without much trouble at all. One glance at some of his highlights is all you need:

I understand that he is just one player, and that it is only June. There have been exactly zero games played in the 2012 season. But make no mistake about it. This is a monumental milestone in the Brian Kelly era. It's a sign that the best recruits in the country can still choose schools like Notre Dame, and it gives faith to those fans that coaches like Brian Kelly can still assemble outstanding talent and compete at the highest level. It's also a sign that Kelly has the Irish moving in the right direction, with a couple solid recruiting classes already in the books and the Class of 2013 having a truly special make up already. Hopefully Kelly can translate some of that success into victories this season, even if Notre Dame has the hardest schedule in the country. If that does happen, combined with continued recruiting success, we'll all know good times are right around the corner for Irish Nation.