GLENDALE, Ariz. — Notre Dame junior linebacker and top NFL prospect Jaylon Smith suffered what coach Brian Kelly described as a “significant” knee injury in the first quarter of his team’s 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Friday.
Smith’s left leg bent awkwardly when he was shoved by an Ohio State player, and the consensus All-American and Butkus Award winner laid on the University of Phoenix Stadium turf for a few minutes before being helped off the field by two Notre Dame staffers. Smith was carted to the Notre Dame locker room and returned to the Irish sideline in the second half on crutches wearing street clothes.
Smith’s leg was in a brace and was completely immobilized. His injury is likely to have an effect on his NFL Draft stock — though teams may look past it and see a first-round talent — though he wasn’t thinking about that immediately after getting hurt.
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“This is such a special kid,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who was with Smith in the locker room after his injury, said. “His entire focus wasn’t a bunch of questions about consequences, it was, you gotta get me back out there so I can be with my teammates. That’s what we focused on, getting him showered, getting him braced and getting him back out there.”
Smith’s replacement, freshman Te’Von Coney, suffered a shoulder injury on the first play of the second quarter and missed the remainder of the Fiesta Bowl. Graduate student Jarrett Grace, a backup Mike linebacker, filled in at Will for the rest of the game.
“It sucks,” Grace said. “In that moment, you’re like, 'Darn it,' and probably said some other choice words. But at the same time, you just transition. Next man in, next man in. That’s been coach Kelly’s mantra for so long.”
Smith said earlier this week he was told he received a first-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. As a junior, he’s eligible to declare for the NFL Draft, and has until Jan. 18 to decide whether or not to turn pro.