FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Jaylon Smith told his trainer to hang on and picked up the ringing phone. It was another NFL team checking in, another round of questions, another round of polite answers with the most important one still out of reach.
This is my number for draft day, yes sir. Weight back up to 240 pounds, yes sir. Doing great, rehabbing, leg pressing, squatting, bungee and resistance running, cleared to do all that, yes sir.
On this onetime Bible college campus in Smith’s hometown, where the former Notre Dame star linebacker has been living and working out at AWP Sports since Jan. 7 surgery to reconstruct the left knee he injured in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, they talk about walking by faith, not by sight.
Listening from a few feet away, Smith’s mentor, Michael Ledo, caught Smith’s eye and said in a hushed tone: “Tell ‘em you ain’t no mortal.”
Smith’s peroneal nerve remains asleep, leaving him unable to lift his left foot or swing it out to the side. It’ll be months before doctors have a better idea whether and to what degree the nerve will wake up. That leaves perhaps the best player in this week’s NFL draft unlikely to go in Round 1, unlikely to play at all in 2016, and 32 team doctors to advise 32 general managers with varying needs and risk tolerance on the odds of Smith making a full recovery.
You wouldn’t sense the uncertainty by watching Smith go through drills late last week, though – smiling, joking, asking for video playback between reps swatting past a tackling dummy, making sure he’s getting his hips through and not forming bad habits. He says he’s a mixture of Von Miller and Patrick Willis, says he’s feeling new sensations through his leg and foot every day, says he believes he could play in the NFL even if the nerve doesn’t get back to 100%.
“I don’t have time to doubt myself,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports, icing his knees between workouts. “Whatever happens, it’s going to happen. But for me, a positive attitude and constantly putting work in to get better – that’s where I’m at, controlling what I can control.
“People think I’m supposed to be down and out right now because of the severe injury and everything, but I’m getting ready to live my dream.”
‘A creature of habit’
Smith eats 10 to 15 pounds of oranges a week, cut in half, thinly sliced and spread out in a chilled bowl. He likes his pancakes slightly burnt with cinnamon and vanilla, his white bread slightly toasted with no crust and his steak well-done (though people are working on that).
“He’s a creature of habit,” said chef Jim Huffman, who cooks Smith’s meals every day at 8:30 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. Smith does athletic rehabilitation weekdays from 9 to 11 a.m., breaks for lunch and a date with his Game Ready cold therapy compression machine, then comes back for strength training from 1 to 3 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tuesdays are leadership development night with Ledo. He gets massages on Thursday nights and Saturdays.
“He plans everything out. He gets it from me,” said Smith’s father, Roger. “But at the same time, this has taught him everything doesn’t always go like you planned.”
Had Smith only torn his left anterior cruciate ligament and all the structures on the lateral side of his knee, which hyperextended as he tried to brace himself from falling after an extra shove from Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker, he would be ready for training camp, said his surgeon, Dr. Dan Cooper. But blowing out the lateral side of the knee stretched Smith’s nerve enough to paralyze the muscles it controls.
While Cooper says Smith’s nerve injury wasn’t in a more severe category and he has “a very good chance of the nerve recovering,” there is no way to be certain that’ll happen or speed up the process. Nerves regrow at a rate of about 1 inch per month after a one-month lag time, Cooper said, and the injured area is roughly 6 inches above the muscle, so Smith – 3½ months out from surgery – has at least several more months of wait-and-see ahead.
“I think that it’s likely to affect him in the 2016 season and he knows that and I think most everybody knows that,” said Cooper, who’s also head team physician for the Dallas Cowboys. “So, the question really becomes, is this 20-year-old, elite-level prospect a kid that you take a little bit of a medical gamble on in the draft? And how much are you willing to gamble?”
It’s the potential waste of a pick, not the money that will cause Smith to fall from where he probably would’ve gone – top-five, with a more than $20 million payday attached.
He stands to recoup up to $5 million through an insurance policy he took out last summer if he’s not taken in Round 1 (the difference between the four-year, $7 million-plus deal slotted for the No. 31 pick and the deal Smith signs, minus any guaranteed money). He also has income from endorsements, including Adidas, and a company that’s giving him a truck to replace the 2003 Pontiac Bonneville he bought off his stepfather a couple years ago for $2,000 (paid in installments).
Once he’s healthy, Smith says, he sees himself as a pass rusher, probably from a 3-4 outside linebacker spot, though he feels he can play inside or outside in a 4-3 or even add weight to be a 4-3 end. NFL executives rave about Smith’s versatility and his performance in interviews. He’s eager to show off his football IQ on the field, proving there’s more to his game than being “just a talented freak who does amazing things.”
If that statement sounds over the top, watch the tape. It makes this situation even more unique: As the draft unfolds, some teams may be staring a long time at the name of the top-ranked player on their board, unsure whether that player will exist again.
“I’m 20 years old. I’m young,” Smith said. “The nerve will come back. It’s just a matter of time. No one can rush it. Our world is so like now, now, now. ‘Will Jaylon play in ’16?’ I may play. I may not play. It’s a possibility for everything.”
‘I’m becoming a better man’
Smith admits he’s likely to sit out his rookie season. But those who know Smith best aren’t surprised he’s ruling out nothing – including being a first-round pick – and embracing a positive outlook.
“That’s just him, true at heart,” Roger Smith said. “He’s always been that type of kid. It’s going to get him past any obstacle that comes his way. All he has to do is believe in it and believe in himself.”
Said Smith’s mother, Sophia Woodson: “He’s done things that no one thought that he would ever do. He’s more determined now, because he has to get back.”
For now, Smith is using an ankle foot orthosis (AFO) device to help him pick up his left foot during workouts, which Smith’s athletic rehabilitation specialist, Dr. Bryan Bourcier, tells teams has progressed past deficit work to functional compensation and progressions. Smith’s legs are the same size again. He has squatted over 500 pounds and leg pressed over 700. Lateral movement is his only major restriction. “He’s getting ready to play football,” Bourcier said.
Smith turned down an invite to attend the draft in Chicago. But he said he probably would’ve done that even if he were healthy, given the limitations on how many people each prospect can bring to the “green room.” There are his parents, stepparents, a dozen siblings and step-siblings, not to mention the team working practically around the clock to try to help him get back.
Ledo, who has worked with Smith since he was in high school, is particularly pained by talk that he’ll never be the same player again. “No one’s talking about that improvement,” Ledo said. “No one’s talking about that freak in there. Look at this dude’s body! Look at him about to do these drills right now!”
If the nerve never recovers, there are options, such as a tendon transfer to hold the foot up, Cooper said, adding that Smith might even be so talented he could play in the NFL even with a foot drop. Everyone and everything around Smith seems tuned to fuel the faith, down to the wall of his suite that’s covered in get-well cards from local elementary schools, many featuring the same word in capital letters: PERSEVERE.
Perhaps that helps explain Smith’s answer when he’s asked whether he’d still play in that bowl game, even knowing he’d get hurt, tossing everything he has worked for into doubt.
“I would play it again. And I don’t just mean that figuratively. Like I truly believe that,” Smith said. “It’s just not in me to give up, even if it was for the benefit of me.
“This could be for the benefit of me. I’m becoming a better man.”