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A look at what made Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith a special prospect

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Jaylon Smith’s future, but let’s take a look back at what made him a unique prospect at Notre Dame.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Minicamp Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Ed note: This article contains a heavy load of GIFs, so if the page loads slowly you will need to have patience.

When Jaylon Smith inevitably takes the field at some point during the preseason, which kicks off in just over three weeks, he will be playing live football for the first time in over 19 months. That’s nearly 600 days, a lifetime in football standards, and in that time the Smith story, which took a detour with his gruesome injury on January 1, 2016, has taken on a life of its own.

There has been plenty of exaggeration, both positive and negative when it comes to Smith post-injury. Some have speculated that he may never play a single NFL snap. Others will have you believe that if not for the injury he would have been in contention to go first overall in the 2016 draft. Neither of those are especially realistic claims, although what is undeniable is that Smith was an elite talent at Notre Dame and was as close to an ironclad lock to being a top 10 pick as you can get at the 4-3 linebacker position. If he had tested as well as he played he would have been a strong possibility in the top five, although it certainly was not a guarantee considering that he plays a non-premium position.

Either way, he clearly projected to the next level as a truly special player. Nobody knows how close he can get to reaching that potential after the injury, but before we head into training camp and the preseason where his every movement will be under a microscope let’s take a look back at what made him a unique talent.

Closing Speed and Power on Blitz

These are two blitzes from the same game. The closing speed and explosiveness is obvious but you can also see the power in the first clip where he jolts the running back backwards and immediately bounces off to close on the quarterback. In the second he forces a holding penalty from the left guard with his combination of timing, speed, and power.

Open Field Tackle on JuJu Smith-Schuster

This play in particular is interesting to note because he is in zone coverage over the middle and shows the short area quickness to close on receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, a second-round pick of the Steelers a few months ago. Smith-Schuster is known for his physicality in general, including after the catch, and it’s impressive to see how quickly Smith finishes the play. He has no chance to gain yards after the catch and his body immediately goes to the ground as soon as Smith wraps him up.

Explosive Open Field Tackle on QB
Open Field Tackle on RB
Another Open Field Tackle on RB

These three plays are all similar in nature. Basically Smith is one-on-one in the open field with a running back or quarterback and shows off his athleticism and explosiveness in space to close and finish the play. One thing that caught my eye that shows up over and over is that when Smith attacks downhill and wraps up on the ball carrier, it’s over. They go to the ground immediately. There is no fighting for an extra yard or two or having to wait for teammates to pile on, the play is over.

Knocks Center to Ground 1 on 1
Takes on C, Squeezes Running Lane

These two plays show off his power at the point of attack. In the first the center is looking to engage at the second level and Smith meets him with aggression, knocks him to the ground and continues to the ball carrier. In the second he again takes on the center, this time from Texas, who is looking to make his way to the second level and again shows the power to engage, hold his ground, squeeze the running lane, and shed to get in on the tackle as the ball carrier approaches.

Works Through Traffic to Ball-Carrier

Here he shows off sideline to sideline speed to work through traffic and make the tackle on the opposite side of the field.

And now for the cherry on top:

In the Hole with Christian McCaffrey

Here he reads the direction of the run, flows in that direction then shows off his ability to change direction, break down in the hole, flatten out and close on Christian McCaffrey, taking him down one-on-one for a loss. This type of play right here, against a player who ended up being a top-10 pick, is what made so many believe that he could one day be an All Pro.

And something to keep in mind here, these plays aren’t from a highlight video or something of that nature. They’re from just 3 of 13 games from his junior year.

It’s anybody’s guess what the future holds for Smith but if he can get back to anywhere close to this level of play, there should be much rejoicing.

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