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Sitting Out To Protect The Future

After Jaylon Smith injury, renewed debate about college stars playing final year with little to gain


Some have suggested LSU running back Leonard Fournette should sit out his final college season to avoid injury.

Jaylon Smith was 53 minutes away from leaving college football and capitalizing financially on his considerable athletic talent.

One shove from an Ohio State player later, his professional future became much less certain.

The star Notre Dame linebacker attended the NFL Scouting combine this week, and it was there that concerning reports emerged about the torn knee ligaments he suffered in the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl. Once a consensus top-five pick, there's no telling where Smith will get drafted now as teams closely examine his medical reports.

For Smith, there's no sense in looking back. He said he would have played in the bowl game again if given the opportunity.

"It's the game of football and it happened," Smith said. "I have no choice but to live with it. I'm just moving forward. That's all I'm focused on."

While Smith can't hit the rewind button, it renews questions of whether current stars should press pause on their college careers.

LSU running back Leonard Fournette will enter his junior season in 2016 as the biggest name in college football. The physical behemoth has a bright NFL future, but couldn't enter this year's draft since he is only two years removed from high school. Players must be out of high school for three years before they are draft-eligible.

With that in mind, some have advocated he sit out next season in order to avoid the worst-scenario of joining Smith with a horrific injury. While it makes some sense, Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim is against any star sitting to avoid injury and preserve their stock.

"As a former player, it bothers me from the standpoint – I understand guys have to protect their financial future, but there's no crystal ball," Keim said. "And to me, that's looking way too far ahead.

"Number one, you initially question the natural competitiveness. Does he want to be out there competing? Number two, is he selling his teammates out a little bit? Because he picked this college and teammates. And three, do you not love the game? We all start playing football as kids because we love playing it. Or do you love it for the paycheck?"

Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu and Fournette are good friends, as both grew up in the same area of New Orleans before attending LSU. Fournette doesn't seem to have any intention of missing this season, and Mathieu agrees with that choice.

"It's not something I would tell any player to do," said Mathieu, who didn't play the season before he entered the NFL. "I wouldn't suggest them to sit out a year, especially if you're coming to this level. You want to have a full session of whatever you're doing. If you're in college, you want to go through that entire program."

Matheu wasn't given a choice when he was suspended his junior season for failing drug tests at LSU. He relayed how tough it can be on a player's psyche to watch from afar.

"It was depressing for me because I love football so much," Mathieu said. "That part of it was hard in itself. And you form relationships with people. Just the idea of them doing something and you not doing it, it's a difficult place to be at."

Smith is hopeful this can be just a speed bump, as it has been for most players who suffered a severe injury in college. During Smith's media session with reporters at the combine, the histories of running backs Willis McGahee and Todd Gurley both came up.

Each bounced back from major knee injuries late in their college careers.

"It's a long-term decision for whoever drafts me," said Smith, who also reportedly has a $5 million insurance policy if he falls out of the first round. "I'm a guy who will be around for a while playing at an elite level."

The biggest cautionary tale is Marcus Lattimore, the running back who suffered a pair of major knee injuries at South Carolina. He dropped from expected first-rounder in the 2013 draft to the fourth, where he was chosen by the 49ers. Lattimore never played in an NFL game and retired in November of 2014, accumulating a fraction of the money he could have had by staying healthy.

If a player sits out, that disaster scenario is eliminated, and a team that drafts him gets a player who avoided an extra season of wear and tear on the body. But it doesn't sit right with Keim, who ranks passion for the game among the highest characteristics he looks for in a prospect.

"I know that's easy for me to say when I'm not the kid where Mom is on welfare and he comes from nothing, and he has the opportunity to change his life and his family's life," Keim said. "I understand that. But the Marcus Lattimores of the world are few and far between. It's a shame if something like that happens, but at the same time, I want to see the competitor. I want to see the guy who loved the game. To me, that's how you win championships, building a team with guys like that."

Images of Cardinals cheerleader Megan from throughout the year

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