The speculation about Jaylon Smith won’t end until he finally sets foot on an NFL field and proves that his knee has fully healed. The Dallas Cowboys drafted Smith with the 34th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft on Friday with the expectation he’ll have a lengthy, successful career in the NFL (
Smith is in relatively uncharted territory when it comes to the damage to the stretched peroneal nerve in his left knee. But universally, Smith’s coaches and former teammates expressed optimism about his recovery and gushed about the elite abilities possessed by the 2015 Butkus Award winner.
“His traits of explosion and speed and all the physical traits we talk about, they’re top-line,” Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “But the big thing with him is he’s a pro. He can walk in any pro locker room, any pro meeting room — he’s incredible in the meeting room — and he’ll talk better football than a lot of those guys that are already there. He’s very knowledgeable. Worked at it hard. Wanted to see the big picture of football.
“So he’s NFL ready the minute he walks into a meeting room. Incredible note-taker. He’s just — if I were still in the pros and I drafted him, I can’t imagine that I’ve ever had any rookie come in that would be where he is. He’s just so far ahead. So far ahead.”
VanGorder has a keen knowledge of what it takes to succeed as a linebacker in the NFL, too, having spent four years as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator and single seasons as the linebackers’ coach for the Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets.
“He’s gonna have a hell of a career, he is one heck of a football player and it’s very, very important to him,” VanGorder said. “He’s a champion. He has a champion attitude. He’ll be good.”
While Smith’s trophy-winning junior season certainly was extraordinary, that he still totaled 114 tackles in 2014 was impressive in a different way. That year, Smith was learning a new position — Will inside linebacker in VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme — and was frequently caught out of position, especially after talismanic middle linebacker Joe Schmidt suffered a season-ending injury against Navy.
But even though Smith struggled with the move inside, his athleticism took over to generate that triple-digit tackle total. Seeing Smith glide from the field to the boundary to make a tackle on an opposing running back was a somewhat common occurrence.
“Jaylon was a production man,” Notre Dame linebackers coach Mike Elston said. “He made everybody else around him better because he was gonna make up for you. You got reached as a defensive tackle? He was gonna get to the ball and make the tackle. It didn’t matter. Doesn’t matter what happens in front of him. Jaylon made up for a lot of things. He was productive.”
Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace offered a different perspective on what made Smith such a good player.
“If he wasn’t in class, I don’t know if he’d instantly transport and just be right here in the (Guglielmino Athletics Complex), in the film room, just wanting more and more and more,” Grace said. “Because he didn’t necessarily want to rely on his physical ability. That’s a tremendous trait, God-given and something he’s worked toward as well.
“But what makes these guys great players is their instincts on the field and they’re able to direct that to the ball, to the play, understanding the game as well. That’s just taking it to the next level. There’s plenty of tremendous athletes out there, you’ll see guys pop up all the time with these crazy numbers, jumping like this. But Jaylon has that and the other side.”
Coach Brian Kelly found himself publicly politicking for Smith over the past few weeks, trying to convey what impressed him so much about his former linebacker to an NFL audience. All Smith needed was a chance, according to Kelly, and he’d prove to be the kind of linebacker he was at Notre Dame — and maybe a better one, too.
The Dallas Cowboys, on Friday, gave Smith that chance.
“He’s going to come back from this injury, and when he does, he’s going to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL,” Kelly said. “He has that kind of ability. … Jaylon is somebody that has an incredible, positive attitude.
“Look, he’s not a gamble. He’s a smart business decision.”