Entering the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, which begins today and runs through Monday, Jaylon Smith is set to be perhaps the second linebacker taken in the league’s April draft. What no one knows for certain is when the former Bishop Luers and Notre Dame star will play his next game.
Few even know the exact nature of the brutal injury to his left knee, suffered New Year’s Day in the Fiesta Bowl.
Sports Illustrated reported it was a torn ACL and LCL, but ESPN said he tore the ACL and MCL. The Irish, and the Smith camp, have been mum on the subject.
The MCL is a ligament on the inside part of the knee, and the LCL is a ligament on the outside part of the knee, said Samuel Taylor, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Taylor has no immediate knowledge of Smith’s injury but said the process for handling knee injuries with ACL and MCL tears typically involves a wait for the MCL to heal on its own while protected by a brace, exercises to regain motion and then ACL repair.
With any multiligament tear, recovery timetables vary as they come down to differences in injury, Taylor added.
"Everyone is treated somewhat differently," Taylor said. "In general, the return to play is usually not before six months, and it may be nine months to a year depending on how well the player is able to rehab and get their strength and stability back in the knee."
Just seven weeks into his comeback, Smith will only do interviews with NFL teams but no physical tests this week at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Smith likely will come across to NFL executives at the combine as mature and responsible, yet they’ll want to know most about his knee.
On Feb. 3, Irish coach Brian Kelly relayed "real positive news" that Smith’s progress was two weeks ahead of schedule.
But it may be difficult for Smith to see the field his rookie season, if a Journal Gazette review of 10 professional and collegiate players who suffered similar multiligament knee tears is any indication.
The average elapsed time for those 10 cases between the player’s injury and his next football game was 12 months, one week and four days.
Sure, Smith can hope to be a Wes Welker (played eight months and three days after a torn ACL and MCL) or an Adrian Peterson (played eight months and two weeks after tearing the ACL and MCL).
But Smith also must know the cautionary tale of fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in an NFL playoff game Jan. 20, 2014.
Bowman never made it back that fall for the 2014 season, and when he returned in 2015, he’d been shelved nearly 21 months.
Returning to the playing field is only part of the story for Smith, however. Once he does so, some wonder if there will be increased risk of Smith re-injuring that left knee.
"Patients always ask me if this injury will have long-term impact upon the knee, and the real answer is we don’t know," Taylor said. "In general, the goal is to take a knee that has become unstable and to repair it in a way to make it stable."
The good news for Smith, who pledged to attack rehab with all his might, is that how driven and ambitious he is in this process could help, Taylor believes, if Smith lives up to his strong-minded reputation.
"There is a psychological impact to it," Taylor said. "Any player who has to return to play has to be able to do so with confidence in their knee."