Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith declares for NFL Draft

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

On Monday, the final domino fell.

Less than two weeks after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the first quarter of his team's 44-28 Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State on New Year's Day, Notre Dame junior linebacker Jaylon Smith announced that he will forego his final season of eligibility and declare for the 2016 NFL Draft.

"I just want to start off by saying, by thanking God for every opportunity that I've gotten thus far in my life, and really just my support system with the whole city of Fort Wayne, Indiana," Smith said in a video uploaded to YouTube, which he published on Twitter on Monday afternoon.

"Choosing a college like Notre Dame and being very successful and having a lot of great people around me, I couldn't have done it without you guys. I'm really just looking forward to the future with my decision and moving forward. I'm deciding to head to the NFL Draft, and it's really just perseverance from here, with the adversity I'm going through right now, dealing with the knee injury.

"I have the same vision, it's just a different path. I'm really looking forward to this opportunity, so I just want to thank everyone for really having my back and trusting my decision."

That decision comes on the heels of a transcendent three-year Notre Dame career that included 293 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker, who was named the Butkus Award winner and a consensus All-American following the 2015 regular season, started all 39 games in his Irish career — leading the team in tackles in both 2014 and 2015.

The only flaw in his resume may be the injury that ended his season.

"(He's) one of the most dynamic football players I've coached in 25 years," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on ESPN on Monday. "He can play the linebacker position as a 4-3 linebacker, as a 3-4 linebacker. Those are very, very rare to find.

"I think he's a generational player at his position, and he'll recover fine from this. We saw Todd Gurley have an ACL/MCL (injury) and obviously it didn't affect his status. The NFL will be lucky to get a young man like this."

Smith became the fifth Notre Dame player this offseason to opt for an early exit,  joining offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, running back C.J. Prosise, wide receiver Will Fuller and cornerback KeiVarae Russell. That's the largest early-entry contingent from Notre Dame since the NFL opened its doors to underclassmen in 1989.

He's also the 13th true junior, and the fifth since the 2014 NFL Draft, to turn down a final season in South Bend in favor of a more immediate NFL future.

But the question remains, both for NFL coaches and fans, how immediate will that future be?  

"Probably the earliest you would expect him to return to the field in full contact sports would be six months, just like Adrian Peterson," Dr. Moira McCarthy, a sports surgeon at the Hospital For Special Surgery, told the Tribune last week. "But that’s on the very, very, very early timetable. More realistically, you’re probably talking somewhere between nine to 12 months.”

For Smith, that means no dazzling NFL Combine 40-yard dashes, no Pro Day prognostications, and perhaps, no rookie season at all.

For NFL suitors near and far, Smith's tape — and his knee — will have to do most of the talking. 

“He was a top 10 pick for me (before the injury) — a versatile player with quick twitch athleticism," CBS Sports NFL draft analyst Dane Brugler recently told the Tribune. "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."

If that scenario were to play out at the 2016 NFL Draft in Chicago, which takes place on April 28-30, Smith will receive a hefty consolation prize. The 2015 Notre Dame captain financed a $50,000 loss-of-value insurance policy that will return a $5 million sum if Smith's injury causes him to tumble out of the first round, ESPN's Darren Rovell reported.

Ultimately, Smith's stock will hinge on his knee perhaps more than his prolific numbers.

"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," Brugler concluded.

It's appropriate, then, that Smith — a Fort Wayne native and a Bishop Luers alum — filmed his NFL Draft declaration video in a weight room, wearing his high school's sweatshirt, with free weights and dumbbells waiting at his back.

With the fate of his NFL future resting on months of tireless rehab, there's plenty of work to be done. 

Love you Brodie!! I know ain't nothing but success in ya future!! #RoomieLove#OutTheMud go get what's yours fam!!

— Devin Butler (@DevinButler_12) January 11, 2016

Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (9) walks off the field following Notre Dame 38-36 loss to Stanford on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Palo Alto, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN