Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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4 JANUARY 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED J aylon Smith has to be weary of his name and one infamous foot- ball play brought up incessantly this time of the year, every year, when the debate renews on whether college players should or shouldn't play in bowl games. The former Irish All-American linebacker became the poster boy for why not to play. An awkward hit during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl shred- ded Smith's knee so badly, the sub- sequent surgery and rehab kept him off the football field for more than a year and a half. The injury cost Smith a top-10 spot in the 2016 NFL Draft and the mil- lions of dollars that would've come with it — though he did go to the Dallas Cowboys in round two. It also raised the inevitable question: Was the risk of playing in the bowl game worth any reward the experience might provide? Nothing Smith could have done on that New Year 's Day probably would've flipped the 44-28 pound- ing Ohio State put on his Fighting Irish. And after narrowly missing a College Football Playoff berth dur- ing that 10-win 2015 regular season, Notre Dame had little to play for in the game except for program pride and a top-10 ranking in the final As- sociated Press poll. Smith's costly and high-profile in- jury brought an unexpected and im- mediate evolution in thinking among top college players that had rarely, if ever, been considered. LSU running back Leonard Four- nette and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey both drew head- lines and a polarizing reaction in De- cember 2016 when they chose to skip their bowl games to guard against injury and protect their first-round NFL Draft status, at least in part, be- cause of what happened to Smith. And already this December, three Texas Longhorns players announced they would pass on the Texas Bowl festivities to begin preparations for the NFL Draft. And more recently, Florida State star safety Derwin James nixed the idea of capping his college career with a trip to Shreve- port, La., for the Independence Bowl, noting that this meant no disrespect to that particular postseason contest or Shreveport. For Notre Dame, a few NFL Draft hopefuls might have considered whether it was best to play in the Citrus Bowl against LSU on New Year's Day or skip it and concentrate on their professional careers. Most notably, Irish All-American offen- sive linemen Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson — both projected as first-round picks this spring — who have nothing to professionally gain by participating in one more college game, plan on playing nonetheless. At the time of the Citrus Bowl an- nouncement, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said there was no indica- tion that any of his players planned on skipping the game, but he added: "If there are any individual cases that need to be dealt with, we'll support our players 100 percent." Sitting out a bowl game is the lat- est example of a growing number of college players putting their futures and earning power ahead of team pursuits and program loyalty, even at Notre Dame, and good for them. In the last three drafts, eight Irish players — including five underclass- men — have left eligibility behind for professional pursuits. NFL careers are typically short, always unpredict- able and cautionary tales like the one written by Smith are causing players to rethink their futures. A group of Irish juniors — running back Josh Adams, linebacker Te'von Coney, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, tight end Alizé Mack and perhaps defensive lineman Jerry Til- lery — could accelerate their profes- sional careers by making the Citrus Bowl their last college game. "It's a business decision," said Irish senior safety Drue Tranquill, who an- nounced last week he will return for a fifth season at Notre Dame in 2018. "… I think when you look at it from a financial standpoint, it makes sense for some guys." For some of those guys, playing in a bowl game is one last chance to gain national exposure, improve a college résumé and earn an invita- tion to the NFL Draft Combine. But for the sure first-round draft hopefuls, that plan doesn't necessar- ily apply. When Fournette and McCaffrey made public their intentions to skip their bowl games last year, popular theory was that NFL general manag- ers and scouts would consider this a lack of commitment, and such self- ishness would be reflected on draft day. Well, Fournette went fourth overall to Jacksonville in last year 's draft, and McCaffrey then went eighth to Carolina. Both are having solid rookie seasons, squashing any theo- ries that skipping a bowl game is a dangerous decision, while unfortu- nately again putting Smith in a de- bate he'll remain at the center of for years to come. ✦ One Sorrowful Play Still Stirs Debate UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at Former Irish All-American linebacker Jaylon Smith provides a cautionary tale for college play- ers who are on the verge of being a top draft pick and earning NFL riches. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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