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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.