Notre Dame still has one very important game left in the 2015 season with their Fiesta Bowl showdown with Ohio State, but that hasn’t stopped the speculation on the NFL futures of a number of Notre Dame players – specifically the five who applied for a NFL evaluation last week. Over the next few days we’ll be examining each player’s individual situation and what impact it could have on the 2016 season.
We are going to start off with the most pivotal of players who could leave Notre Dame early after the 2015 season – star linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Jaylon Smith’s Current Draft Stock
Sky high. Mel Kiper and Todd McShay both have Jaylon Smith firmly in their top 10 overall prospects – Kiper all the way up at #2. They aren’t the only one ones. You will be hard pressed to find any analyst actually that has Smith ranked outside the top 10 overall draft picks right now. So in terms of draft stock, Smith’s most likely will never be higher than it is right now – especially in a draft class void of elite quarterbacks to go in the top 10. Add all of that up and it certainly would appear that, from a draft standpoint, Smith would have much to lose, and not much to gain from a senior season.
What He Gains by Returning
Honestly, the only reason for Smith to return at this point would be play for a national title and earn his degree. One of those things, the degree, will always be there for him to return to when his football days are done while the other can never be replaced and on the surface, it would appear that that could be the only thing that possibly gets Smith back for another season in South Bend.
From a football standpoint though, Smith is already a 1st-team All-American from most sources and is well on his way to becoming Notre Dame’s first consensus All-American since Manti Te’o. He has also already been awarded the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker – an award he also won as a high school senior as the best prep linebacker in the country. His trophy room won’t be quite as stocked as Manti Te’o’s but he will not be hurting for any hardware by any means.
What His Loss Would Mean
Should Smith leave as many expect, Notre Dame will have to replace two starting linebackers and three total members of the starting front seven from this year’s defense. While Notre Dame, or any team for that matter, simply has another Jaylon Smith waiting in the wings, Notre Dame does have quite a bit of young talent at the linebacker position. Tevon Coney, an early enrollee last year would appear to have the inside track for Smith’s starting spot, but yesterday’s 5-star commitment from Daelin Hayes, another early enrollee would throw another name in the ring to replace Smith.
Notre Dame’s defense, a unit that already suffered through breakdowns and inconsistent play with an elite linebacker like Smith, will need more than one player to replace Smith though. They will need improve play from the defensive line and the linebacker unit as a whole to replace what would be lost if Smith is using his freakish ability on Sundays instead of Saturdays next fall.
What His Return Would Mean
Should Smith shock the world and return for a senior season, it would be about as big as the senior year return of Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Ronnie Stanley, and Sheldon Day all rolled into one. It would be that big. If he were to return to anchor the Notre Dame defense next year, Smith would be a consensus All-American to start the season and when combined with some of the young rising talent, he could lead a potentially elite defense. That is, if the scheme of Brian VanGorder finally materializes in his third season like we all thought it would this year. And for those who might snicker at that, remember it wasn’t until year three under Bob Diaco that the Notre Dame defense, fueled by Te’o’s return, played at an elite level. Up until that point, the jury on Diaco’s defense was just as much out as it is on VanGorder’s at this point.