All eyes were on Jaylon Smith Wednesday.
The Dallas Cowboys linebacker took part in football drills for the first time in front of reporters, and he received praise from teammates and coaches.
For Smith, he treated it like just another day of work. When pressed by reporters, he admitted it felt nice to partake in drills even though players weren’t in pads.
“It feels great. It feels great,” Smith said. “It’s a blessing to be a part of this team. I’m just happy to be here.”
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It’s another step forward for Smith in his recovery. He tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee during Notre Dame’s bowl game Jan. 1, 2016. Damage to the peroneal nerve was more problematic.
But the Cowboys understood the risk when they selected Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft. One of their team doctors, Dr. Dan Cooper, performed the surgery on Smith and Cooper gave a timeline of 9-15 months for the nerve to fully recover.
“Each week we gradually continue to progress,” Smith said.
Smith went through individual drills Wednesday, doing things such as hitting a bag and simulating a tackle. He also worked on the kickoff return unit in special teams’ drills, and took five snaps with the second-team defense in team drills.
Smith, 21, is still wearing a brace on his left foot for a drop foot condition caused by the nerve damage. He doesn’t know if he’ll require the brace for games yet, but is in good spirits about his progress.
“I’m just doing everything I’ve been doing, taking it day by day and performing at a high level,” Smith said. “It was pretty intense – individual work and getting some seven-on-seven in, some special teams.”
The question remains whether Smith will play at a “high level” in games. It’s too early to make that type of prediction.
As defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said, “Pads are everything. … He’s going through Stage 1 here and it’s good stuff so far. But, to me, it’s just step by step … progress. Try not to see it more than what it is. It’s just day-by-day progress.”
The Cowboys are expected to remain cautious with Smith in next week’s mini-camp, likely having him go through two limited practices with one rest day. Signs point to them having a similar setup early on when training camp begins next month, but nothing has been finalized.
“Don’t want to make those statements. We certainly love the progress that he’s made and are excited about what he’s been doing up to this point,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s getting more and more comfortable with the football movements. He’s been playing more football for us the last couple of weeks. And that’s been a positive sign for him.”
Simply seeing Smith get back on the field has been a positive for several within the organization.
Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus, quarterback Dak Prescott and linebacker Sean Lee all had similar praise for Smith. In particular, Lee has battled back from similar injuries that have sidelined him full seasons in the past.
“You’re not used to not playing,” Lee said. “You played your entire life and then all of a sudden you’ve got to miss a year. You’ve got to learn how to walk again, you’ve got to learn how to get your muscle back. The attitude that he had? He never flinched. He’s been positive every single day.
“It’s been so fun to watch. He’s really been an inspiration in how he’s handled it.”
Smith has already said he’d be on the field when the Cowboys open the 2017 season on Sept. 10 against the New York Giants. And he certainly wasn’t going to back off that comment after what he did Wednesday.
“I feel explosive. I’m moving fast,” Smith said. “And it’s a great feeling to be a part of the Dallas Cowboys.”