Did Jaylon Smith’s Injury Lead to Early NFL Departures for Notre Dame?

Jaylon Smith Injured in Fiesta Bowl
Photo: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Star Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith’s career had been going exactly according to plan. The one-time five-star prospect arrived in South Bend as the highest rated linebacker recruit Notre Dame had signed in the Internet recruiting era, even surpassing the ranking of Manti Te’o, one of the most decorated defensive players in college football history.

Smith managed to live up to the sky-high expectations placed upon him by garnering All-American accolades and capturing the Butkus Award, an annual honor given to the nation’s top linebacker. The next step in Smith’s storied career was a jump to the NFL where stardom was likely to follow as it had in high school and college. But then the Fiesta Bowl happened.

In the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State the Indiana native’s foot appeared to become entangled in the turf, causing Smith to immediately fall to the ground grasping his knee in pain. And although Smith says he doesn’t regret playing in a bowl game that led to his tearing an ACL, the fallout from the injury has been severe.

Expected to be a high first-round NFL Draft selection – with some outlets even reporting him as a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick – Jaylon Smith’s stock has plummeted since the injury. Three NFL teams have leaked the Notre Dame standout has been removed from their pool of draftable players pending further medical evaluations in April, and two other teams have indicated Smith will land on a list of red-flagged players even with a positive medical evaluation in April.

The wariness of NFL clubs stems from concerns regarding possible nerve damage to Smith’s knee when David Chao, former team doctor for the San Diego Chargers, noted Smith was wearing a brace often used for nerve recovery. That speculation was fueled by Jaylon Smith’s comments at the NFL Combine.

“It’s just a matter of the recovery process,” Smith said. “I don’t know when the nerves and everything will heal.”

As Jaylon Smith continues to stumble down NFL Draft boards, one can only wonder what impact Smith’s slide has had on the Notre Dame program. The Fighting Irish have long used the risk of injury as a recruiting pitch to convince players to keep the NFL at bay until a degree is earned, but the Smith saga may have the opposite effect, with this year’s early entrants a prime example.

While Jaylon Smith and Ronnie Stanley were expected to declare early due to their high draft status, there was surprise in many Notre Dame circles when Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise and KeiVarae Russell all chose to forego their eligibly for the NFL. Prosise declared despite having only played one season of his career at running back and Russell left one underwhelming season after a year-long suspension for academic misconduct. But the most unexpected departure came from star wide receiver Will Fuller.

Irish fans rejoiced in November when Will Fuller announced his intention to stay at Notre Dame for his senior season after the most productive two year stint in program history with 29 touchdowns, only to reverse course and declare for the NFL Draft after the Fiesta Bowl. And while Fuller has never come out and said Jaylon Smith’s injury played a role in his decision to forego his senior year, it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t taken into consideration, particularly with the language Fuller used for his announcement.

“My heart truly wanted to return to Notre Dame,” Fuller’s statement read, “but it has also been a lifelong dream to play in the NFL. After taking all of this into lengthy consideration, I believe it is in my best interest to forego my senior season and enter the 2016 draft.”

It’s worth noting Will Fuller’s statement also included an intention to return to get his degree at a later date, and it’s hard to argue against his strategy after Fuller recorded a dazzling 4.32 second 40-yard dash time this week at the NFL Combine, the fastest time of all wide receivers.

Jaylon Smith’s injury is a reminder of the risk top players take every time they take the field, and likely cost Notre Dame some of its best players for the 2016 season.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at scottjanssenhp@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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  1. As I previously implied, the ND administration has no WILL to win, and therefore there’s no WAY winning will happen. I’m surprised BK has stuck around this long.

  2. I hear you SFR – now you did it- I’m blaming you for the following rant.
    We’ve heard it before- I need to re-rant. Sorry ahead of time.

    Zorich and Rice, two ‘borderline student-athletes’, and Jerome Bettis, and Ricky Watters were given the chance to be on the ground-floor of the Lou Holtz era, and they left as students-NFL bound getting a world-class education plus as athletes were key contributors in building a winning program.
    I can’t dismiss the potential damage done by role of the ‘Quiet Man” Irish film-epic tribute that Jenkins and Swarbick played during the frozen five fiasco.
    I heard more from Justice Clarence than I heard from either of them during or since.
    If elite, you plan on heading to the NFL, despite less than 3% of them make it.
    If you’re considered elite, why take the chance at ND with their annual academic gotchas of student-athletes; other places, a B- in a summer school class wouldn’t get you off the team the next season (#1 Bryant), nor someone proofreading your paper. Don’t throw them out, pull them in.

    End of rant . . .

  3. I’m sure all of us on here would love nothing more than seeing a veritable pipeline of first-round “early outs” leave ND (with degrees in collective hand) year in and year out.

    That’s not the problem. The problem is we don’t have nearly enough of those. The problem is that as good as BK has recruited it’s not nearly been good enough to compete with the best. That’s the problem.

    The solution to that problem is change at the top of the ND administration which is crippling the football team. The proof is in the pudding! Almost 30 years of absolute futility.

    With all due respect to the fire BK/BVG crowd, that’s not where the firings need to happen. They need to start much higher up the food chain!

  4. With extensive conference and national coverage, other teams have what ND had under Lou, a recognition opportunity that wasn’t there twenty years ago. ND does present the challenge of actually being a student-athlete, and don’t for a minute think that isn’t brought up to elite athletes during recruiting. The “frozen-five fiasco” will have subtle recruiting disadvantages for years to come. Kudos to the staff for overcoming the odds and landing top 15 classes despite that bumbling clown car administration of Jenkins and Swarbick. BK and staff have recruited more elite players than all three of his predecessors combined. Talking about overcoming “Although the odds be great . . . ”

    Know who else had about as many early outs as ND? Alabama and Ohio State. And many of ND early-outs gave up a year of eligibility but not with out a degree earned. (see: Golson, K. Russell, Stanley, Proscise)

    With elite players come early outs. Jaylon’s injury reminds them indeed if the NFL comes calling, you’d better answer when they do, because your potential future is of little concern to them if you’re injured. And injuries are commonplace and troublesome to overcome when NFL scouts come for a look, (as Jaylon shows us). You get drafted before you graduate and you’ll have the money to return to get your degree if you want it.

    Here’s hoping Jaylon has a full recovery and many years in the NFL.

    Here’s hoping ND fans get used to elite players leaving early.

  5. Hello, George,

    I think if ND can return to whatever it was doing or, more precisely, not doing under Lou it would be a start. Somehow, Lou was able to recruit academically-challenged athletes and sign them to play at ND. These young men not only excelled on the football field, most ended up graduating and doing the university proud. Like I’ve said, somehow, under Holtz, ND managed to have its cake and eat it!

    Go Irish!

  6. Looks like it was a rule bender that got your Stanford on track. He should have known he’d be under the microscope at Michigan. Who knows what he did at Stanford. But neither Stanford nor ND are eliite anyway. And I agree Saban and Meyer can’t cut it at ND…. no coach can. Bring on Princeton and Yale!

  7. Hello, George,

    I think it’s great that the “3rd string CB got an A on his mideterm,” to use your humorous example.

    However, the ND administration needs to look hard and decide whether they want to recruit and keep only Rhodes Scholars to play football. If so, then ND should just join the Ivy League.

    Of course, Stanford is thriving on the football field with an even more rigorous academic standard than ND’s. So perhaps what ND needs to do is hire some of Stanford’s top administrators.

    Nick Saban or Urban Meyer would never make it at ND. These guys are either rule benders or outright rule breakers and ND doesn’t need them or that, George.

  8. Demetris Robertson could have replaced Fuller, but unfortunately ND doesn’t care enough about winning to actually land him. It’s all good though, because the 3rd string CB got an A on his midterm. So take THAT, Nick Saban!

  9. I just saw one of Fuller’s interviews at the combine and he specifically mentioned that he made his decision to leave ND early because of all the injuries he witnessed and the fact that he is currently healthy and had a good junior year. Unfortunately, I think Jaylon’s injury is the start of higher profile players leaving ND with eligibility left. As much as I love having these players come back to help our next ND team, it is very difficult to argue with their decision. If your lifelong dream is to play in the NFL, why risk another full season when a major, even career ending, injury could occur on any given play. I don’t blame them and my heart goes out to Jaylon for his unfortunate situation. That’s some of the worst luck I’ve seen happen to one of the best players to come out of ND. It may cost him and his family millions in the long run. Hopefully he will have a full recovery and go back to being the old Jaylon we know and have a great NFL career!

  10. matteo,

    I have to say I disagree with you on Fuller being replaceable. No WR has his speed and can stretch the D like he can. However, I do feel that we will have an all around better receiving corp this year than last, especially with the fact that Alize will be used much more this year. I have a feeling that Corey Robinson is going to have his breakout year, similar to Mo Stovall his senior year. Eq St. Brown is going to be really good and we all know that Tori Hunter Jr is going to get better. And as far as the bowl game went…Jaylon going down so early killed our chances right from that point. OSU knew they could just pound it with the run after that. And even though Russell had a crap year, he is still a very good tackler and would have made a difference if he was playing too. So I don’t think saying that ND still has a hard time competing with the top Big 10 teams. Could you imagine ND playing an OSU schedule each year…what a joke but I’d take it because we would make the playoffs probably every other year like those bastards.

  11. Notre Dame lost five name brand players this year. It will be very difficult to replace that crew especially Smith. Fuller, as great as he was, is replaceable. ND has a few very good receivers coming on board to go with the ones returning. The QB spot is loaded and the running back position should be fine. Offensively and defensively is another story. Even with Smith the D was inconsistent and at times non-existent. Lots of work to be done there and the QB depends so much on the O line that it better be better than last season. Hopefully, Kelly and his men can respond to the challenge and come up with something better then last season. Yes, yes I know they won 10 games but there losses came against probably the three best teams they played all year. The bowl game proved that as good as ND thought they were, they still have a hard time competing with the top Big 10 teams! Shake down the thunder and find some top notch recruits!
    GO IRISH!!!

  12. I love how all those NFL team doctors so expertly determined that Jaylon has nerve damage ONLY AFTER Jaylon mentioned having nerve damage. Just stick to your needles, guys.

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