Jaylon Smith

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.

Stay or Go? Analyzing Jaylon Smith’s NFL decision

during the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.
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All-American and Butkus Award-winner Jaylon Smith‘s knee injury was a nightmare scenario for anybody who likes football. Notre Dame’s junior linebacker had roughly 50 minutes left of his college career when Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker got a final shove in at the whistle, causing Smith to step and land awkwardly on his left leg and his knee to buckle unnaturally.

The result is a “significant” knee injury, with a local Fox-affiliate reporting multiple ligament damage, likely the ACL and MCL. That type of injury threw a very large wrench into the postseason plans of Smith, who even with a reported $5 million insurance policy has to make some difficult decisions.

On Monday, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote in his Monday Morning Quarterback about Smith’s dilemma, pointing to the lofty draft status Smith had in some team’s eyes before the injury:

I think this is what I heard on Jaylon Smith, the highly talented Notre Dame linebacker and prospective very high NFL draft choice who suffered that terrible left knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl: Smith, a junior, was very likely to come out in the 2016 draft, and he would have been a top three to five pick if he came out healthy.

One NFL scout who was at the Fiesta Bowl said Saturday he thought Smith was a top-three pick. Another who I spoke with Saturday said of the players he saw this fall, if Smith came out, he’d have been a strong candidate to be the top overall pick. “There is not a defense he would not fit in,” the second scout said. “This is a huge story.”

Over the weekend, Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune tackled the same question, talking to NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright about an injury that—even if Smith slides from a Top 5 pick to the 15th overall slot—could be as much as a $15 million hit.

“Let’s say it’s a torn ACL,” Wright told Hansen, “something similar to what (Georgia running back) Todd Gurley had last year. Smith is going to go in the first round anyways, because like Todd Gurley, he’s such a freak talent that there’s a limit to how far he’s going to slip.

“At some point in the first round, somebody’s going to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take a top five talent if he falls into our lap.’ ”

Wright said it’s not inconceivable that Smith could slide from No. 5 to No. 15. And based on the inflexible rookie salary scale and last year’s signing figures, that’s the difference between a $21.2 million, four-year contract at the fifth draft position and one of $10.7 million, 10 picks later.

The signing bonus differential is also significant — $13.7 million vs. $6 million, which is included in the total contract value.

That loss of money—the lump-sum signing bonus and additional guaranteed money from the rookie contract—might give Smith reason to consider returning to Notre Dame. Play out his senior season, earn a degree, and reenter the draft completely healthy, hoping to reestablish himself as an elite pick at the top of the 2017 draft board.

Of course, that’s no sure thing either.

Smith is nine months away from opening day against Texas. That’s not a herculean ask to be back on the field and ready to play with today’s medical advancements, but Smith would still be working his way back and doing his recovering on the field, evaluated by NFL scouts who’ll see a linebacker likely wearing a large knee brace. It’ll serve as a constant reminder that he’s still less than a year removed from a major surgery that could rob Smith of his best football trait—rare athleticism and speed for a linebacker.

Those traits don’t seem to be in question. If Smith declares for the draft in the next few days—he still has two weeks to make that decision official—he’ll spend the next few months rehabilitating, not going through the cattle call that asks NFL prospects to validate their on-field performance with height and weight measurements, appropriate arm length, 40-yard dash times and short and long shuttle runs. A team that drafts Smith early likely believes that he’ll return to the numbers we assumed he’d run, a 40-yard dash in the 4.5 range and equally nimble and explosive times and scores. Smith won’t be asked to prove those numbers—one of the rare luxuries that come with an injury like this.

Todd Gurley’s run up the draft board to No. 10 last year proves that it only takes one team to believe in your ability to be a game-changer. And as King’s comments show, Smith is the type of player that has lots of teams believing in his ability to fit into their scheme and change the football game.

Ever since Willis McGahee suffered a major knee injury in his final college football game and still found his way into the first round, teams have become more and more comfortable with the recovery from a knee injury that’s now almost routine thanks to the evolution in medical treatment. Smith could receive that type of treatment in South Bend, or do it under the watchful eye of his new employers—while getting paid a hefty salary to do so. Most NFL players who make generational money don’t do it on their first contract, they do it on their second. Smith leaving for the league puts him a year closer to that second deal.

That’s a large assumption. We’ve seen recently the negative that comes with leaving Notre Dame before you’re ready, with Troy Niklas and Louis Nix cashing weekly paychecks but doing nothing to assure themselves of career longevity.

We’ve heard nothing from Smith yet, who is likely talking with his family and advisors about not just his professional future, but the decision on who’ll perform the surgery to repair his knee. From there, Smith will likely meet with Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick a final time before deciding what he’ll do moving forward.

In all likelihood, Smith’s time at Notre Dame is over and he’ll move on to the NFL. You only wish that the circumstances surrounding the decision were better.

Jaylon Smith’s Butkus Award win a trend in the right direction

Jaylon Smith, Tyrone Swoopes
AP
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For the second time in four years, the best linebacker in the land is from Notre Dame. Junior Jaylon Smith won the Butkus Award yesterday, given to college football’s top linebacker. That’s the second major win for Smith in as many days, named to USA Today’s All-American first team—with the chance to follow Manti Te’o’s footsteps as both a Butkus winner and consensus All-American as well.

Smith’s win came in an interesting year for linebackers. Preseason favorites Scooby Wright and Myles Jack went down with injuries. Smith’s upside and gigantic pro potential likely won him the award over Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, who statistically had a big season as well.

Awards at the end of the year do more than put more hardware on the shelves of the Gug. They help recruit talented athletes, giving coaches someone to point to as they help blue-chip prospects imagine themselves filling Smith’s shoes. That’ll be happening this weekend, as Notre Dame hosts a group of recruits for their annual awards show, and will likely play into the recruiting decision of a dynamic defensive prospect like Daelin Hayes, who plans to announce his college choice on Thursday.

Smith’s kudos also likely silence some of the criticism of Brian VanGorder. In his two seasons playing under VanGorder, Smith’s stats exploded. Confined to the Dog linebacker position under Bob Diaco, Smith’s best work went mostly undetected, his impact felt more off the stat sheet than on it. (To be fair to Diaco, he was also a true freshman playing college football for the first time.) Shifting to the Will linebacker and moving all over the field, Smith’s play this season was his most consistent, and only a fraction of what he could do if he stuck around for a fourth season, a decision that doesn’t seem likely considering his current draft stock.

Smith is the first defender to win both the high school and collegiate version of the trophy. He’s a rare 5-star prospect who has delivered everything that was expected from him, his rapid ascent the product of opportunity, good coaching and elite skills.

With a request in to the NFL’s advisory board and a meeting with Brian Kelly still upcoming, Smith’s final game as a Notre Dame linebacker may come against Ohio State. It’s a contest that’ll mean quite a bit to him, playing a team where his brother played and matching up against All-American running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Evaluating Notre Dame’s five early NFL Draft prospects

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Justin Thomas
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Notre Dame submitted five names to the NFL Draft advisory board, looking for feedback on juniors Will Fuller and Jaylon Smith and seniors C.J. Prosise, KeiVarae Russell and Ronnie Stanley. Brian Kelly said he’d be meeting with all five players to discuss their NFL future before any decisions are made.

“We’ll see where that goes. I hope they all come back. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case, but we’ll see,” Kelly said Sunday.

For the Irish, it appears that two prospects have bright immediate futures at the next level. Stanley, who’ll graduate at the semester but has a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, and Smith, who has started for three seasons at Notre Dame, notching 100-tackle seasons in both 2014 and 2015. Both are widely believed to be first round prospects, at or near the top of their position group heading into the evaluation season.

The other three players aren’t quite as cut and dry. For Fuller, a two-season run as one of college football’s most explosive players has been undercut by some bad drops. Prosise’s single-season greatness, not to mention his versatility as a receiver, make him an intriguing prospect at the next level, but he’s far from a readymade player at a position already devalued with talent.

Russell’s return to college football wasn’t necessarily as triumphant as many expected. Now he’ll spend the majority of his combine prep time rehabbing from a major leg injury, far from an ideal situation for a defensive back that needs to show great testing numbers to be drafted anywhere in the first three rounds.

To get an outside perspective on the decisions each of these five players have in front of them I reached out to Josh Norris. He’s the NFL Draft writer for Rotoworld and NBC Sports and took some time to breakdown each prospect.

Norris seems to be with just about everybody else who believes that both Smith and Stanley have top of the first round potential. Here’s his quick eval on Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker:

Plenty of games where [Smith] shows complete LB traits. Athletic and quick enough to work around blocks and succeed in coverage, strong enough to take on blocks and shed when necessary. Aggressive finisher. Early round 1 pick is within reach.

While some wondered if Stanley’s “struggles” during the 2015 season would impact his draft grade, it appears that he remains the same type of high-ceiling prospect that finds his way to the first round as well.

Norris believes Stanley will compete with Ole Miss’s Laremy Tunsil for the top tackle off the board, with many NFL scouts keeping a very close eye on the Fiesta Bowl battle between Stanley and Ohio State’s Joey Bosa.

I remain a big fan of Stanley’s. Sure, he was beat a few times against Clemson and sprinkled in some other “losses” against other teams, but all tackles lose. I think he offers great size, length and athleticism, which can equal power. He and Laremy Tunsil will compete for the top tackle spot.

From there, it appears that Notre Dame’s three remaining draft prospects would do their stock a favor by returning to school in 2016. For as dynamic as Fuller has been, he’s projecting as a Round 2 or 3 type player right now, per Norris.

“A team who drafts him (in 2016 or 2017) will have to understand the drops come with the big plays,” Norris explained. “Therefore, benching him or decreasing reps because of drops is pointless. It is who he is. He will atone for a mistake with a huge play.”

Prosise projects to be a similar player to another former Irish running back/receiver, the Detroit Lions’ Theo Riddick. While we all know Prosise has better breakaway speed, Riddick’s instincts as a runner and ability as a pass catcher have allowed him to find a niche at the next level. That might be what teams think they can get from Prosise, which is why Norris sees him as a fourth round-type back entering the offseason.

Lastly, KeiVarae Russell’s senior season left a lot of scouts trying to understand what to make of him. After appearing to be on a great trajectory at the end of his sophomore season, Russell allowed 14 catches on 29 downfield targets, a stat that left many thinking he was rustier than he let on. Russell may have accomplished his goal of returning to South Bend and earning his degree, but he may help his career by coming back in 2016.

“[Russell] was far from consistent. Maybe it can be chalked up to missed time in 2014, and I bet some evaluators will conclude it was,” Norris said.

Last year, Brian Kelly, Jack Swarbrick and a contingent from Notre Dame sat down with Sheldon Day and Stanley as the duo weighed NFL options. Both opted to stay after talking things through.

This year, those conversations will happen—even with Fuller, who pledged his return a few weeks back and Smith, who everybody assumes is gone. As Kelly has shown in the past, his recruiting skills have helped keep Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd. Building on the team’s 2015 success, keeping players like Fuller, Prosise and Russell could lead to a very impressive 2016.

Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: C.J. Prosise #20 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish dives into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the fourth 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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On an Irish schedule that’s seen its share of change these past two years, not many people on the Notre Dame side of the tracks view the game against Pitt as a rivalry. But that’s not to say it isn’t a unique game. Nor can you say that there’s a lack of familiarity between these two programs.

This will be meeting No. 70 between the two programs, a matchup that dates back to 1909. So before stainless steel, the Titanic, and even the Oreo cookie, there was Notre Dame and Pittsburgh doing battle on the football field.

Pitt understands the gravity of this matchup. And with a natural rivalry against Penn State nonexistent, the Panthers always circle the Irish on the schedule, relishing the fact that the feeling isn’t always reciprocated.

Saturday’s game has the opportunity for another maximum impact matchup. The Panthers are still alive in the Coastal division race of the ACC, a two-loss season already feeling like a success for first-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Notre Dame came in ranked No. 5 in the first installment of the College Football Playoff poll, their inclusion in the Big Dance in the crosshairs. With the Irish already in the Steel City readying for an early start, they can expect a Panthers team that isn’t just playing gate-crasher, they’re still looking to make their mark and play for a conference title.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. On a weekend that always seems to fly below the radar, there’s a high likelihood we are in for another interesting Saturday.

 

Forget about what the point spread says—history tells us this will be close. 

The last time Notre Dame won easily against Pitt, we still weren’t really sure how to pronounce Jeff Samardzija’s name. It was the coming-out party for Charlie Weis’s 2005 football team, when the Irish offense blitzed Dave Wannstedt’s Panthers and cruised to a 42-21 victory.

But since then, this game has been a nail-biter. The next six games have all been close. It’s a series that’s split the past eight contests and stayed within one score in nine of the past ten matchups, including multiple overtime battles in 2008 (Pitt won) and 2012 (the Irish escaped).

So much has changed inside the Pitt program since that meeting in 2005. Wannstedt was replaced briefly by Mike Haywood, who never coached a game before being replaced by Todd Graham. Graham didn’t make it a calendar year before he bolted for Tempe and was replaced by Paul Chryst, who left to coach Wisconsin last offseason, clearing the way for Narduzzi.

But even amidst the coaching turmoil and changes on the roster, this game has been a close one. So even with the Irish favored by nearly double-digits and the Panthers coming off a disappointing loss to North Carolina, expect a tight football game.

One possible solution for the close-game blues? Call Ara Parseghian. The former Irish coach beat Pitt all 11 times he played them, winning on average by a score of 42-9.

 

 

Tyler Boyd needs 49 yards to become Pitt’s all-time receiving leader. Notre Dame needs to make sure he doesn’t get them all in one play.

Brian Kelly deemed Tyler Boyd the latest “game-wrecker” that the Irish will have to face this season. And the veteran Pittsburgh receiver has earned that title, one of the best receivers in college football, even as the Pitt passing game still sorts itself out.

Boyd’s consistency and game-breaking ability have him ready to pass Antonio Bryant as the Panthers’ all-time leader in receiving yards, needing just 49 yards to do it. And as the only big-play threat in the Pitt offense with James Connor’s season erased in week one, expect to see the achievement happen Saturday, even if he’s locked up in battle with KeiVarae Russell.

But Notre Dame needs to make sure it doesn’t happen on one play. We’re in for an interesting battle on Saturday—a Pitt offense that struggles to make an explosive play and a Notre Dame defense that can’t seem to stop allowing them.

So while Boyd’s yards per catch is down to just 9.3 per touch, he’s the Panthers’ clear No. 1 receiver, nearly quadrupling the next closest pass catcher with 63 receptions on the season. An explosive player in space and also on special teams, Notre Dame needs to tackle cleanly and make sure they limit the damage Boyd does after the ball gets in his hands.

 

On the road and starting early. How the Irish adjust will be critical to success. 

Notre Dame hasn’t had a game start this early in the regular season since the Irish traveled to Pitt in 2011, winning an ugly slugfest 15-12. So to help adjust for the early start time, Kelly and the Irish brass decided to get out of town early, flying out Thursday night to help acclimate for the new schedule by going through a dress rehearsal on Friday.

Kelly talked about the decision to leave Thursday, and the thought process behind it.

“This will be the first time that we’ve used this type of schedule. We want to be able to duplicate Saturday’s schedule,” Kelly explained. “We took out some of our periods from practice today and we’ll include those tomorrow… to again get them used to a duplicate schedule on Friday and Saturday.”

UND.com’s Curt Rallo wrote about the logistics behind the decision, and some of the challenges that came along with it. Finding the hotel rooms was the first big one—Notre Dame needed 100 rooms for Thursday night. Then came booking the plane.

Now comes playing a dominant, mistake-free football game away from Notre Dame Stadium. That’s easier said than done.

 

Narduzzi’s defense will want to stuff the run. Whether they can do it is another story. 

Pat Narduzzi built his reputation playing an aggressive brand of defense, dominating at the line of scrimmage and forcing opponents to become one-dimensional. The first-year head coach has done a nice job implementing that style at Pittsburgh, even as he builds the necessary personnel to do it.

Expect Narduzzi to sellout to stuff the run, unwilling to let C.J. Prosise beat the Panthers from the backfield. But unlike the job Clemson and Temple did, whether or not Pitt is able to do so remains to be seen.

Pitt is a respectable 36th in the country against the run. But the past two weeks have shown cracks in the foundation, with Syracuse and North Carolina both able to be productive on the ground.

In Pitt’s 23-20 comeback win over the Orange, two big runs allowed Syracuse to average 5.9 yards per carry. North Carolina averaged 5.0 yards per carry in their 26-19 win, jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead before riding former Notre Dame commitment Elijah Hood in the second half.

Notre Dame’s ability to run the football comes down to the play of the offensive line. Last week, the Irish struggled with missed assignments—and a stacked box—and couldn’t get the ground game off the runway. This week, it’ll be a challenge, but Kelly believes that the offensive line can find success against Narduzzi’s defense, but only if they play more consistent football.

“What we need to do is really be, as a unit, consistent,” Kelly said Thursday. “Eliminating penalties. And that one missed assignment seems to always come at the most inopportune time. If those two things, if we can eradicate those on Saturday, I think we can look to our offensive line to having a big day.”

Pitt’s pass rush has struggled to get to the quarterback the past few weeks, leaving the secondary susceptible as Narduzzi sends blitzers. That’s a chance to make big plays on both the ground and through the air if the offensive line can hold up.

 

Jaylon Smith has played great football. But Notre Dame’s coaching staff is challenging him to elevate everybody else’s play, too. 

One of the more fascinating exchanges on this week’s “A Season with Notre Dame” on Showtime was the interactions between defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s leading tackler and junior captain was challenged by his coach to elevate his teammates’ play—something VanGorder hasn’t necessarily seen out of the star linebacker.

That’s an interesting piece of Smith’s development. Not just as a leader, where Smith acknowledged he wasn’t necessarily comfortable acting like someone he wasn’t, but as a football player, making sure all boats rise with him, to borrow (or butcher) a metaphor Kelly has used in the past.

Smith might be playing his final four regular season games as a college football player, a decision you couldn’t fault if he’ll be a first-round draft pick and one of the first linebackers selected in the NFL Draft. But Kelly talked about the challenge to Smith and how he expects him to respond to it, regardless of the future.

“Leadership for Jaylon has been one where he has led by example and we don’t think that’s enough to be a great leader,” Kelly explained. “We think that you have to be somebody that is interactive if you will. He has to be teaching and communicating. It has to be more than just actions. We know about his actions, they’re phenomenal. You just watch him play, that speaks volumes. We want him to be more of a communicator with the guys and I think that’s the point that we wanted to make with him. And he took it to heart.”

Smith’s “communication” doesn’t necessarily have to be in the former of mentorship, like we saw with freshman linebacker Te’von Coney on Showtime. It needs to be demanding more accountability from his teammates on the field, whether that be the situational contributors or fellow captain Joe Schmidt.

Smith’s quiet leadership style isn’t too far off from what Sheldon Day was last year, and we’ve seen the senior evolve into a more vocal leader as his play also took a huge leap forward this season. If this November is the one the Irish expect to have, Smith needs to demand better from a defense that can’t seem to shake their inconsistency.

 

Red Zone efficiency is key. 

If you’re looking for one thing to improve this week it’s Notre Dame’s red zone play on offense. The Irish have a unit averaging 495 yards a game, the best of the Kelly era. And while the 36.5 points a game is also the best of Kelly’s time in South Bend, that number could be so much better if Notre Dame did a better job finishing drives.

Notre Dame is 100th in the country converting red zone opportunities, scoring on just 79 precent of their chances. They’re only slightly better getting touchdowns, 85th in the country with a 58 percent rate.

The good news? Pitt’s red zone defense is the worst in the country statistically. The Panthers have yet to stop an opponent once they get inside the 20-yard-line, No. 128 out of 128.

But that stat is incredibly misleading. The Panthers have been much better at not giving up touchdowns—they jump to No. 22 in the country when you look at their ability to hold teams to a field goal, basically the inverse of an Irish defense that’s 27th in red zone scoring but 93rd in giving up touchdowns.

Kelly talked earlier this week about the importance of the red zone, not just from quarterback DeShone Kizer eliminating the mistakes that plagued the offense against Pittsburgh, but the need for everybody to do their jobs when they get in the scoring areas.

“Our offense is what it is. We just have to be more efficient down there and spend extra time in practice in making sure that when we get into those areas, we convert them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

“We’ll take some extra time this week. We’ve done some more self-scouting in terms of play calling, what we’re doing down there. But I think at the end of the day execution from everybody, a heightened awareness of where we are, then a little bit more extra practice time.”

That extra time came on Thursday, with the Irish working short yardage running and their playcalling inside the 10- and 20-yard lines. Now they need to take a step forward, cashing in when they have the chance to beat a team, opportunities they missed against Virginia, USC and Temple.