By Chris Emma–
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (CBS) — Superhuman, that Jaylon Smith.
Teammate Jarrett Grace used that term to describe Smith, his fellow Notre Dame linebaker entering the NFL Draft. Smith stands at 6-foot-3, 229 pounds and can fly over the field with elite athleticism in this draft class. He’s a physical specimen who’s built for a fruitful professional career.
“He’s an incredible guy, incredible athlete,” Grace added.
Smith’s superhuman presence didn’t mean he was immune to the freak injury that suffered on New Year’s Day — a torn left ACL and LCL in the Fiesta Bowl. At Notre Dame’s pro day on Thursday in South Bend, 72 executives from 31 NFL teams each confronted the mystery and possibility of Smith’s future.
Initially projected as a top-10 pick with the chance to even climb into the top three, Smith’s draft stock remains in limbo. Sometime in the latter half of April, he will conduct a medical recheck — following up from his medicals at February’s NFL Combine — that will confirm how his ligament damage is progressing and, more importantly, whether there’s nerve damage.
Recovering from an ACL and LCL tear, while a gruesome injury, can be routine. Returning to All-American form after potentially suffering nerve damage would be another story.
“Looking forward to the re-check,” Smith said Thursday. “It’s going to be some great results. I’ve been working my butt off every day. Just taking it one day at a time, but I’m doing great.
“They just want to see progress, and it’s something that I’m going to show.”
Smith was then ushered off by a Notre Dame official. When last he spoke publicly, reporters at the NFL Combine grilled him with question after question about his status. Team executives surely had even harder inquiries to Smith’s health.
One scout attending Thursday’s pro day at Notre Dame believed that Smith would stay in the first round. Another felt he would fall deep into the second round. What comes from those medicals, and specifically the status of potential nerve damage, is key to determining the result. Smith would likely miss at least the entire 2016 season if the nerve is severely compromised.
NFL teams are stuck in a waiting period, wondering what’s to come from Smith’s medical re-checks. Even if the damage is strictly to his ligaments, there are still no promises for 2016. Smith said at the NFL Combine that drafting him is a “long-term decision,” and at the age of 20, he’s not wrong.
However, NFL general managers are often under pressure to find an immediate impact in the draft. Only the league’s best teams can justify taking a “redshirt” prospect in the first or second round.
“There’s no doubt what he can do,” said Notre Dame center Nick Martin, a highly regarded draft prospect in his own right. “There’s no doubt he’s going to come back the player that he is. You take him and some day he’s going to be an unbelievable linebacker, just like he was here.”
What makes Smith a special talent isn’t just his raw talent but his work ethic, too. He’s viewed as a passionate player who loves the game of football and puts in the effort to be great. Smith’s a constant presence in the film room and often made a home in the office of Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Smith earns that trust from NFL teams because he’s incredibly bright and willing to learn. When healthy, he’s the complete package.
“True student of the game,” Grace said of Smith. “He can adapt, he can learn, he can adjust on the fly. If you’re not going to have his presence on the field, you’re going to have it on the sidelines, in the locker room — just thirsty for more.
“He didn’t necessarily want to rely on his physical ability. That’s a tremendous trait God gave him.”
The intrigue surrounding Smith is evident. If healthy, he could be a superstar NFL linebacker, but there’s also the serious concern that he may never be the same All-American talent he was at Notre Dame.
What comes of April’s medical re-checks will confirm NFL teams’ greatest beliefs or worst fears and determine the future of the “superhuman” Smith.