AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Jaylon Smith had his future planned.
Survive one more college game, declare for the NFL draft and live his lifelong dream.
Then the Notre Dame linebacker’s left knee buckled following a late shove from Ohio State’s Taylor Decker on New Year’s Day. Smith was looking at two torn ligaments, months of rehab and the possibility of temporarily putting his pro career on hold.
Smith refused, and now is trying to resell himself to NFL scouts.
“It tests your patience, but it has made a man out of me,” he said at the NFL scouting combine, which ended Monday. “That’s the first time I have been injured in my life. It’s the NFL, and there are a lot of knee injuries. Guys come back and play well, so there is no doubt in my mind. It’s just a matter of when I will be able to.”
The gamble could still pay big dividends.
Before the injury, Smith was widely considered one of this year’s top draft prospects. If teams are convinced Smith will make a complete comeback — a major question — many draft analysts believe Smith remains worthy of a high pick. If not, Smith could recoup some of his lost money thanks to an insurance policy he took out before the 2015 season.
Smith is one of many early entrants who are rewriting conventional wisdom about turning pro early.
More guys are leaving with degrees in hand before they complete eligibility, and the conventional wisdom used to be that injured guys returned to school to prove they were healthy.
Today, everyone wants to believe they’re the next Willis McGahee or Todd Gurley, two running backs whose college careers ended with major knee injuries yet still went in the first round. What they often forget is that the NFL also is littered with stories like Marcus Lattimore’s. San Francisco used a fourth-round pick on the South Carolina running back in 2013, but he never played in an NFL game after tearing every ligament in his knee and dislocating his kneecap in his college finale.
Of course, some players, such as Auburn running back Peyton Barber, are publicly acknowledging they feel a need to take the cash to overcome real-life hardships.
Just how much has changed over the past several years?
— Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg left school early after enduring two straight subpar seasons and then injuring his throwing shoulder in his final college game.
— Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright opted for the NFL after foot and knee injuries limited him to only three games and 23 tackles in 2015.
— UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller gave up their remaining eligibility despite having season-ending knee cartilage surgery last fall. Neither was cleared to do on-the-field drills in Indy.
“I had to make a decision pretty soon, considering it was a four to six month injury,” said Jack, projected to go in the first round. “I just kind of decided being behind in school, being behind physically and everything, I felt like the best decision for me was to pull out of school and concentrate on getting better.”
Returning to school comes with its own risks.
Ohio State’s Cardale Jones was widely regarded as one of the top five quarterbacks in last year’s draft class — until he opted to go back to school. He wound up winning the Buckeyes’ starting job, then lost it and watched his draft stock sink.
Now Jones is trying to show scouts he’s a more complete player.
Team officials can’t afford to let public perceptions influence the decision-making process.
“If he’s a junior right now and you’re speculating him to get picked at position ‘A’ and he stays in and he gets picked at ‘C’ instead of ‘A’, well ‘A’ was just speculation anyway,” Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead said. “That’s more theory than truth. I do think that when you play that extra year, you have a better chance of playing better earlier.”
There is also greater risk for injuries, as Smith and some of his draft-classmates learned during the 2015 season.
And after Smith posted a video of his rehab on social media, questions surfaced whether there might have been nerve damage in the knee — a complication that could slow the recovery process.
Even Smith couldn’t clear it up. First, he told reporters the nerve was not injured at all.
Later, he acknowledged: “I feel great. There’s no soreness in the knee or there’s no pain. I’ve been off pain pills for almost a month. It’s the matter of the recovery process. I don’t know when the nerve and everything will heal, but it’s just a matter of me taking it day-by-day and controlling what I can control.”
So Smith will spend the next two months explaining why he’ll make it back — and what they’d miss out on if teams bypass one of the best potential playmakers in the draft.
“I view myself as the best player in the draft, you know?” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of waiting and enjoying the process and controlling what I can control.”