For years to come, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith will be the prime example for elite college players who sit out their bowl game to protect themselves from an injury before the draft. Smith suffered a devastating knee injury in his final college game with Notre Dame.
Smith wouldn’t change a thing, however.
Smith was set to perhaps be a top-10 pick in the 2016 draft. But he suffered a horrendous knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl. The Dallas Cowboys still took him in the second round, but he sat out all last season and the team is being careful with his return this season. There are still legitimate questions if he’ll ever recapture the physical ability he had.
Despite everything Smith has been through the past year-and-a-half, he still would play in that Fiesta Bowl.
“Those freak types of accidents, injuries, they happen. But you don’t go in the game thinking, ‘Oh man I’m going to get hurt,'” Smith said on the Doomsday Podcast with Matt Mosley and Ed Werder, via the Dallas Morning News. “That was my decision, and I love it. And I wouldn’t change it. If I knew that I was going to get hurt and wasn’t going to be a top-five pick again, I would have literally played in that game again because of my teammates and how much Notre Dame means to me.”
It’s hard to fault Smith for that. It’s also hard to fault players like Leonard Fournette or Christian McCaffrey who saw what happened to Smith and decided to skip their bowl games. It certainly didn’t hurt either player’s draft stock. Fournette went fourth overall and McCaffrey was picked eighth. When college players aren’t paid, it makes sense to protect a future multi-million dollar career by skipping a meaningless bowl game.
It’s understandable why a college player would want to play his final game with his teammates and represent his school too. Michigan tight end Jake Butt went from a borderline first-round pick this year to a fifth-round pick by the Denver Broncos after he tore his ACL in the Wolverines’ bowl game, but he said he has no regrets. Most players don’t suffer a catastrophic injury in a bowl game. Smith was just unlucky.
It’s hard to say where Smith’s career is headed. Perhaps he still can become a star in the NFL, or maybe the knee injury will prevent him from ever making a big impact. Either way, Smith will have a clear mind about what happened in his last college game.
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