Former Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith eyes bright side of NFL Draft
CHICAGO — Jaylon Smith walked without a limp through the doors of the NFL Store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and out of a spitting rain. He glided past racks of of gray t-shirts, each stamped with the No. 1 and a last name likely to be called in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday.
Smith’s name wasn’t among them. He didn’t seem to notice.
Instead, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker sat behind a counter next to former Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson, wearing a grin and a baby blue hoodie from Adidas — the brand that recently signed him. Now, Smith was doing the signing — signing pictures, signing pieces of paper, signing the cast on a fan’s injured right wrist. This was one of the final stops in a draft process Smith couldn’t have predicted.
But if he resented the hard road, he certainly didn’t show it.
“(The last couple months have been) ebbs and flows,” Smith said with a grin on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s been a transition from the collegiate level to being a professional. It’s definitely been a learning experience. I’m definitely happy for everything that’s happened to me thus far.”
A quick summary of all that’s happened:
• In the first quarter of Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1, the junior linebacker and assumed first round lock tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee, suffering peroneal nerve damage in the process.
• He was unable to participate in nearly all physical testing in both the NFL Scouting Combine and Notre Dame’s Pro Day.
• His medical re-check in mid-April eliminated hope that Smith could return for the 2016 season and caused teams to question whether his nerve will completely heal.
As a result, Smith was not invited to attend the NFL Draft. His T-shirt did not hang in the NFL Store on Wednesday. His stock corroded from top-10 inevitability to mid-round mystery.
And yet, he’s happy.
“It’s an opportunity for growth,” Smith said. “I’m getting a chance to chase my dream. My dreams are about to come true here within less than 100 hours. I’m looking forward to this opportunity.”
There’s no telling when that opportunity will come. Smith could go as early as the second round on Friday, or his burdensome left knee could drag him into the abyss of the later rounds.
There’s little certainty, but plenty of nervous optimism.
“Somebody’s going to take him and put him on the shelf and redshirt him and hope and pray that that (nerve) comes around,” NFL Network analyst and former 49ers and Lions head coach Steve Mariucci said Wednesday. “Because if it does, you have a Pro Bowler.”
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who covered many of Smith’s Notre Dame games as a member of the NBC broadcast team, added more hypotheticals than answers.
“After the two quarterbacks, to me, he would have gone third (if he had not gotten injured),” Mayock said. “He’s the best positional player in this draft.
“The NFL is all about predictability of recovery when you’re talking about injuries. His knee is fine. It’s the regeneration of the nerve. When you don’t know how long or if … those are three big words to NFL people, how long and if?
“He’s going to be in a little bit of a free fall, but I still think teams love the player and the kid.”
If Mariucci were still in charge of an NFL franchise, would he gamble on Smith — the player, the kid (and the nerve) — in the middle rounds?
“Absolutely,” Mariucci responded, as if nothing could be more obvious. “Oh my God. In a heartbeat. I love that kid.”
That kid — the two-time Butkus Award winner, 240 pounds of chiseled muscle and bouncing black dreads — will not walk across the Auditorium Theatre stage in Chicago on Thursday. He won’t hug Roger Goodell and hold up his jersey. He’ll watch on television with his family in Fort Wayne, Ind.
He’ll fulfill a dream from a distance.
“I’m just taking everything in — the positives, the negatives,” Smith said with his trademark grin. “It’s just been a wonderful experience even to be in this situation. I’ve been working for this for 13 years, since I was seven years old. My dream’s about to come true.”