Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

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Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

BK on Jaylon: “Going to be one of the best linebackers in NFL.”

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with Cole Luke #36 after recovering a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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As the NFL Draft approaches rumors continue to swirl about the health of Jaylon Smith‘s knee. Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker and Butkus Award winner tore his ACL and LCL in the Fiesta Bowl, ending his college career in nightmarish fashion.

The recovery process on the injury has been slow going, pushing Smith out of the first round in many mock drafts. The concern about nerve damage has some believing Smith might never look like the player many thought could in consideration as the draft’s top pick.

Don’t count Brian Kelly among those doubters.

Notre Dame’s head coach caught up with Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman, and talked about his unflinching belief that it’s not a matter of if with Smith, it’s when:

“First, I would be careful to not jump to any kind of conclusions based upon the information that you’re getting right now,” Kelly said. “Jaylon will play in the NFL. It’s just a matter of time. He’s going to come back from this injury, and when he does he’s going to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He has that kind of ability.

“This is an injury that we’ve seen before. We’ve had them on our team. They take time, but Jaylon is somebody that has had an incredible positive attitude.”

Kelly’s belief comes from both knowing Smith’s work ethic and unflinching focus, but also having the knowledge that while structural timelines after surgery have accelerated with technology, there’s only so much you can do to speed up the nerve’s process.

With Smith covered with an insurance policy that will pay him handsomely every pick he falls after the end of the first round, Smith also gets the added benefit of having one-less year guaranteed on his rookie contract if he’s taken in round one.

“He’s a smart business decision when you’re thinking about Jaylon Smith, because he’s going to get back on the field just because of his ability to heal,” Kelly told Feldman. “He’s an incredible athlete and a positive guy. We’re not in that mindset of disappointment or concern that he’s not going to play again.”

Re-Stocking the roster: Linebackers

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s spring roster at linebacker is one of the most interesting position groups on the roster. Jaylon Smith is gone, the junior All-American taking his talents—and healing knee—to the NFL. Joe Schmidt is no longer in the middle of the defense, the two-year starter and team captain no longer a coach-on-the-field. Jarrett Grace is gone as well, a player who’ll be missed by more than the 115 snaps he played in 2015.

A new generation awaits, nearly all of them recruited under Brian VanGorder. James Onwualu remains at Sam linebacker, a potential three-year starter who has never been a truly full-time player. Nyles Morgan’s wait is over, the starting middle linebacker job is his to lose. While injuries and youth will impact how the Irish decide to fill Smith’s shoes, there are some intriguing young athletes ready to see if they’re capable of stepping forward.

No group has more to do this spring than Mike Elston’s crew. So before spring practice begins, let’s take a look at the state of the linebacking corps.

 

DEPARTURES
Jaylon Smith
, Jr. (114 tackles, 9 TFLs)
Joe Schmidt, Grad Student (78 tackles, 4 TFLs)
Jarrett Grace, Grad Student (26 tackles, 2.5 TFLs)

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Barajas*
Asmar Bilal*
Te’von Coney
Daelin Hayes
Jonathan Jones
Jamir Jones

*Fifth year of eligibility available

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
James Onwualu, OLB
Nyles Morgan, MLB
Te’von Coney, OLB

Greer Martini
Josh Barajas
Asmar Bilal
Daelin Hayes

 

ANALYSIS
Where’d all the linebackers go? That’s the first thing that jumps out, just how thins the numbers seem to be. It’ll be very interesting to see how spring practice goes, especially considering the injuries that have wreaked havoc on this group. Coney is expected to be out for spring, healing from a shoulder injury that happened just plays after Jaylon Smith went down. Greer Martini also needed work done to fix an injury that all but kept him out against Ohio State, how that impacts his spring remains to be seen as well. Daelin Hayes has everybody excited, but he’s coming off a late-November shoulder surgery, so spring practice isn’t necessarily the best bet for him to be unleashed.

It’s a very big spring for two young redshirts, with Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas looking at nothing but opportunity in front of them. This defense badly needs playmakers and both guys were recruited because of their ability to make an impact. But Barajas was never healthy last season after getting hurt in fall camp, and he also added heft to his frame that the staff didn’t necessarily think he needed. Bilal is a great-looking athlete, though probably could use some of the extra weight Barajas was lugging around to protect him in the trenches.

On paper, it’s easy to see some weakness at the position, especially after attrition took guys like Michael Deeb, Kolin Hill and Bo Wallace out of the program. And while some of that will be shored up come summer when Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones hit campus, this position may also be impacted by how well the secondary’s rebuild goes. A season after not being able to play a nickel or dime package, those may be preferred looks in 2016.

The biggest question that faces this group is knowledge base. Replacing two multiyear starters is difficult. Now add in the challenges of learning position fits and scheme under Brian VanGorder and it’s no wonder some Irish fans are calling for a dumbing down of the playbook.

But before things get too remedial, it’s worth pointing out that this is Morgan’s third year learning under VanGorder and the only defense he’s known at the college level. He should be ready. And whoever slides into Smith’s shoes, they’ve been in the program for at least a full season. The key to all of this is Morgan. If he’s able to take his instincts and athleticism and pair that with a solid grasp of the system, there’s a big year in store. Throw in Onwualu, some intriguing athletes and ascending talent and while it might take some time to learn new jersey numbers, there’s plenty of promise on the horizon as the next wave of linebackers step into battle.

Jaylon Smith declares for NFL Draft

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A major knee injury won’t stop Jaylon Smith from heading to the NFL. Notre Dame’s consensus All-American and Butkus Award-winning linebacker declared for the draft on Monday, deciding to turn professional even after surgery to repair a torn ACL and LCL ligament.

Smith made the announcement via social media, confirming a decision most expected regardless of the injury status.

Smith received a first-round draft grade from the advisory committee before his injury, a grade revealed in the days before the Fiesta Bowl. While the injury may impact how high in the draft he goes, Smith has a $5 million insurance policy that protects him should he slide out of the first round.

“It’s really just perseverance from here, with the adversity that I’m going through right now and dealing with the knee injury,” Smith said during the low-key video announcement. “I have the same vision, it’s just a different path.”

Smith ends his three-year career at Notre Dame with two 100+ tackle seasons, the team-leader each of the past two years. He was a three-year starter for the Irish and their first consensus All-American on defense since Manti Te’o in 2012.