IRVING, Texas – Jaylon Smith was at a private bowling alley with family and friends – including his brother, Cowboys running back Rod Smith – in their hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., when the Cowboys called and made him their second-round draft choice (No. 34 overall) early Friday evening.
"I'm a huge bowler," Jaylon said. "I love bowling."
Jaylon Smith loves football, too. He can't predict the exact date, but he's looking forward to returning to the field healthy.
In his final college game on New Year's Day, the standout Notre Dame linebacker suffered a serious left knee injury against Ohio State. Three and a half months since the injury, which included ligament and peroneal nerve damage, he said the knee is doing well structurally. It's the nerve that must regenerate with time, and "it's too early in the process to tell when."
"The nerve could come back tomorrow. It's just a timing thing," Smith said. "When it wants to come back it'll come back.
"I'm going to be fine. I'll be able to play again. Timing is everything. For Dallas to draft me, they're going to get a great player. I'm looking forward to playing for a great team."
The Cowboys' team physician, Dr. Dan Cooper, performed Smith's knee surgery in January, and executive vice president Stephen Jones said the organization had a good grasp on his injury situation.
"We just think he's going to be a great football player," Jones said. "He may not play this year, which we accept, but I think what he ultimately is going to be is certainly worth investing our second-round pick."
Smith's return date is unclear. When healthy, though, he has been a dominant defender at the college level. A three-year starter at Notre Dame, he won the 2015 Butkus Award recognizing the nation's top linebacker. The Cowboys felt Smith could have been a top five pick if healthy, and team owner/general manager Jerry Jones said they ranked Smith in the top five on their draft board as a "cornerstone" type defensive prospect.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said Smith is versatile enough to play "Will" (weak side) or "Mike" (middle) linebacker in his scheme.
"His tape just leaps off the screen," Marinelli said. "I mean, he is really good. He's really athletic in space, great hands, great tackler, blitzer. He's just a real ball player. I think he fits anybody. But in our system the way we'd use him, it'd be pretty special.
"You look at a guy like this, and you look a year from now, we've got one of the best players in the draft. Obviously there's patience and all those things that go with that, but he's well worth it."
Smith joins the Cowboys with a support system already in place, with Dr. Cooper part of the medical team and Smith's brother, Rod, his new teammate.
The last three and a half months have been challenging, to say the least. Once considered a certain first-round pick, Smith's draft projection fluctuated due to his injury.
When the Cowboys called Friday night, Smith was clearly emotional.
"Just everything I've been through thus far," he said. "It's been the most challenging time of my life, but at the same time it's been the best time of my life where my dream just came true."