Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith to have reconstructive surgery

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

The first step in Jaylon Smith's comeback will take place Thursday, under a knife.

That's when Smith — a 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior linebacker — will undergo reconstructive surgery on his left knee to repair damage that includes a torn ACL and MCL, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen. The consensus All-American and 2015 Butkus Award winner has yet to announce whether he will return to Notre Dame in 2016, though he likely won't return to the field next season regardless of which path he chooses.

Notre Dame caught an unfortunate glimpse of its future without Smith in the 44-28 Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1, when the seemingly indestructible linebacker planted awkwardly on his left leg with eight minutes remaining in the first quarter and suffered a "significant knee injury," according to Kelly.

His loss registered on the scoreboard, the draft board and in the locker room.

“Man, that hurt, because I call him my little brother," said senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who announced that he will declare for the NFL Draft on Monday. "He’s been my little brother since he’s been here. Out of high school, I was cool with him when he came here. So it’s tough to see that.

"The sky’s the limit for the kid. He’s all-everything. That’s what's tough. I don’t know anything about his injury. I just know it’s tough to see him go down.”

Smith had been widely considered a high first round lock in the 2016 NFL Draft if he chose to forgo his senior season at Notre Dame, and he said in the week prior to the Fiesta Bowl that the NFL Draft Advisory Board had given him unanimous first round grades.

"I want to be great in everything I do," Smith said last week. "I definitely wanted it to all be first round (grades). If one came back second round, that would push me even more. I'm just a competitor."

Smith is also a fighter, and he'll have to be — starting Thursday.

It's unclear how severely the injury will affect the linebacker's NFL Draft stock. If he does opt to test the professional waters, Smith will join a group of early Irish exits that consists of offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, running back C.J. Prosise, wide receiver Will Fuller and Russell, who would have had to submit a waiver to the NCAA for a fifth season of eligibility.

Smith, however, might simultaneously present the highest risk and the greatest potential reward.

"When team doctors have a chance to look at the rehab, look at the recovery in March and April, that’s really what’s going to determine where Jaylon Smith falls on draft day and what his value is," said Dane Brugler, senior NFL Draft analyst for CBS Sports and NFLDraftScout.com.

In three seasons at Notre Dame, Smith — a Fort Wayne native — compiled 293 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception, while starting all 39 games of his career.

The former five-star recruit led Notre Dame in tackles in both 2014 (112 tackles) and 2015 (114 tackles), becoming just the second Irish player (after fellow Butkus Award winner Manti Te'o) in the Brian Kelly Era to record at least 100 tackles in consecutive seasons.

But will the player that returns from injury be as athletically gifted as the one that suited up in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State?

“He was a top 10 pick for me — a versatile player with quick twitch athleticism," Brugler said. "He just moves at a different speed than you see a lot of linebackers move. He’s not a power player per se, but he can do a lot of things other linebackers can’t. He’s a three-down player. He can stand up, drop in coverage.

"So there’s a part of me that says there’s no way he’ll fall out of the first round, and there’s another part that says maybe he does. Maybe he’s an early second rounder."

The NFL Draft is held in Chicago April 28-30

If Smith throws his hat in the ring, his surgically repaired left knee will draw plenty of scrutiny.

"Look at a guy like (former Florida defensive end) Dante Fowler, who tore his ACL and missed his entire rookie year with the Jaguars," Brugler said. He went third overall (before suffering the injury), and if you knew going into the last draft that Dante Fowler is going to miss his entire rookie year, where would Dante Fowler have been drafted? I think he still would have been drafted somewhere in the first round.

"Using similar logic with Jaylon Smith, even if you had to play without him his entire rookie year, where would you draft him? I still think some team would have to take a chance on him in the first round. That’s assuming that the surgery goes well and he’s on pace to come back fully recovered.”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (9) reacts after a leg injury during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN