Outlining Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith's road to recovery

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Here’s what we know.

Jaylon Smith is the 2015 Butkus Award winner, which means that he’s widely regarded as the premier linebacker in college football. He has started all 39 games of his Notre Dame career, leading the team in tackles in both 2014 and 2015. He’s a 6-foot-3, 240-pound anomaly, somehow strong enough to obliterate blocks and fast enough to chase down bullets.

At least, he was.

That all changed at the 8:00 minute mark of the first quarter last Friday, when Smith was shoved in the back by Ohio State’s Taylor Decker, planted inelegantly on his left leg and crumpled to the turf in a heap, simultaneously submarining his team’s Fiesta Bowl hopes and clouding his significant draft stock.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that the junior linebacker tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee, and reconstructive surgery would be performed on Thursday.

Now, here’s what we — and most NFL franchises — would like to know next:

When will he be back?

“In professional athletes, they get such good rehabilitation. They’re doing rehab every single day, multiple times a day,” said Dr. Moira McCarthy, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery, which has worked with the New York Giants, New York Knicks, New York Mets, Brooklyn Nets, St. John’s University athletes and USA Basketball, Rowing, Swimming and Volleyball, among others.

“Probably the earliest you would expect him to return to the field in full contact sports would be six months, just like Adrian Peterson. But that’s on the very, very, very early timetable. More realistically, you’re probably talking somewhere between nine to 12 months.”

Of course, there’s no telling where Smith will make that return. The Fort Wayne native — who has amassed 293 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception in his three-year Irish career — has one season of eligibility remaining at Notre Dame, though CBS Sports NFL Draft Analyst Dane Brugler and draft analyst Scott Wright previously told the Tribune that Smith could still be a first round draft pick regardless of the injury. The deadline to declare for the NFL Draft, which takes place in Chicago on April 28-30, is Jan. 18.

Smith also financed a $50,000 insurance premium to pay for a $5 million loss-of-value policy if an injury caused him to slip out of the first round, ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported last week.

But will the fact that two ligaments were damaged — in this case, the ACL and MCL — elongate Smith’s recovery, thus shattering any hope of the linebacker returning to the field next season?

“No, the ACL really takes priority in returning,” McCarthy said. “The MCL is going to be treated at the same time, so it’s really not going to add much (recovery time) to it.”

If Smith’s recovery follows the established timeline of nine to 12 months, that could mean a realistic return — whether for Notre Dame or an NFL franchise — between October and December of this year.

The road to recovery, though, is paved with a challenging rehab.

“He’ll probably be on crutches for (the first) two to four weeks, then a long knee brace for probably six weeks,” McCarthy said. “He’ll have limited weight bearing during that time, but getting his motion going in terms of bending and extending the knee.

“The typical guidelines are to get on a treadmill and run on a straight line somewhere between the three and four-month mark. For him, I’d guess they’ll start to work on agility shortly thereafter, once his muscles are sort of back to normal and ready. For most people, that begins between six and nine months. For him, it may be a little bit sooner.”

The hope is, at the conclusion of a potentially year-long rehab, that Jaylon Smith will once again resemble Jaylon Smith — the former five-star recruit whose breathtaking athleticism and fluidity caught the eye of opposing offensive coordinators and salivating NFL scouts.

Smith’s injury, though significant, doesn’t preclude a complete recovery.

“Everybody is a little bit different, and it totally depends on how much he trusts the knee going forward,” McCarthy said. “If he can get back to a level where he has complete trust in the knee and trusts his muscles and trusts his ability to cut and pivot with the knee, I think there’s a great chance he’ll be able to get back to where he was.”

Even then, there’s no guarantee Smith will stay there. The No. 1 risk factor for an ACL injury, McCarthy said, is a previous ACL injury. The “rate of failure,” or likelihood of a repeat tear in the damaged knee, hovers around 5 to 7 percent.

For all anyone knows, Smith’s injury could fade into little more than a forgotten footnote, an outlier on the periphery of an otherwise outstanding career.

But the threat will always linger. For now, all Smith can do is heal, rehab and prepare for an eventual return – whether that be at Notre Dame or a new home in the NFL.

“I think certainly this will be on everyone’s radar for him going forward,” McCarthy said. “However, he’s going to undergo really extensive rehab and, really, rehabilitation is going to be his job for the next year or whatever it takes him to get back. I think, with that in mind, he’s going to be trained and his therapists and his trainers and everybody is going to be working hard to minimize his risk.

“They’ll work on jumping and landing. They’ll work on cutting and pivoting and make sure he has no risk factor for a knee injury with those particular maneuvers. They’ll be working on his balance, working on his landing, working on his glute strength, working on his core strength, working on his quad strength and hamstring strength. All that goes into minimizing his risk for having another one of those injuries going forward.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (9) is helped off the field following 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