NEW YORK — Jaylon Smith finished his first season at Notre Dame with a unique experience and a victory.
The former Bishop Luers star, who started every game this season, had six tackles in Saturday’s 29-16 victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
“It was surreal, just being around everything,” Smith said of being in New York for the first time in the days leading up to the game.
Smith had a surreal season himself as he became the first freshman outside linebacker to start a season opener for the Irish since Kory Minor in 1995. He moved into the starting lineup when returning starter Danny Spond, a senior, had to stop playing before the season because of the recurrence of severe migraine headaches.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder had a tackle in his first game against Temple on Aug. 31 and went on to finish third on the team in tackles with 61. Smith had the fifth most tackles by a freshman in school history and the most tackles by a freshman since Manti Te’o had 63 in 2009.
“I knew it was going to be a journey,” Smith said. “I was a bit used to longer seasons considering high school (when he helped Luers win four straight Class 2A state championships). I knew it was going to be a great challenge, I just had to keep my heart in it.”
Smith’s 6 1/2 tackles for loss were second only to defensive end Stephon Tuitt’s 7 1/2 , and he also had an interception, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and broke up three passes.
Smith will be the only returning starter to the Irish’s linebacker group as outside linebacker Prince Shembo and inside linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox graduate.
“He’s an amazing person and an amazing athlete, and I think he is only going to get better, too,” Fox said of Smith. “He’s a great person for the young guys to emulate and follow. I think he can lead. He has the characteristics, and I think he is ready to do that.”
Smith may need to be a leader for more than the linebackers as defensive end Stephon Tuitt may have played his last game for Notre Dame on Saturday. The junior, who had four tackles and 1 1/2 sacks against Rutgers, received a second-round grade for the NFL draft and may not return for his senior season.
“He will now focus on making that decision,” coach Brian Kelly said of Tuitt. “He knows all the information, my job is to provide him with all the information about the decision he is about to make. I’m pretty certain that he will make his decision here very, very soon.”
Smith said he is ready to step into whatever role the Irish need from him next season.
“I think there is going to come a time where I’m going to have to lead,” Smith said. “I’m not sure if it is going to be next year, but I’m going to give it my all. We have guys coming back. We lost a lot of guys. But it’s going to be a great year next year.”