The Dallas Cowboys practiced in pads Wednesday for the first time and all eyes were on linebacker Jaylon Smith, who donned a full uniform for the first time since a devastating knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame 17 months ago.
While owner Jerry Jones compared the anticipation of watching Smith practice to that of seeing a first-round pick go through full drills for the first time, it’s important to separate fact from fiction.
Smith, 22, has come a long way from a year ago when many outsiders thought he might never play again after going down Jan. 1, 2016 in the Fiesta Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes. In that game he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, and had damage to the peroneal nerve.
He still has a long way to go to be considered 100 percent, let alone the top-five talent he was considered before the injury.
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Smith has been wearing a brace on his ankle and foot and is expected to continue doing so.
And the Cowboys plan to be cautious with him, limiting reps and consecutive practices days as gets re-acclimated to the game in full pads.
Doing drills and going through mini-camps, which Smith has aced so far, is not the same as football on Sundays.
But there is no question the excitement inside and the outside the organization is palpable as he practiced in full pads for the first time in 572 days. He got eight reps in team work on Wednesday, while also practicing for a third straight day for the first time since the injury.
“It’s just a great feeling, a huge accomplishment to get back on the field with my teammates,” Smith said. “It was about moving forward. It was full pads. It’s a lot of things that come with it, the nitty gritty and the real contact. It was something I embraced today and was able to get after it.”
He enjoyed the thrill of suiting up and laying his first lick on a tight end during individual drills.
But the key for the Cowboys and Smith is patience.
They have come a long way from a year ago and there is no reason to rush things now.
The knee is stronger and more secure. The nerve is firing and regenerating, showing marked improvement based on his most recent EMG test, used to record the electrical activity of muscles, taken right before camp.
He said he has no limitations, just rust from not playing the game in year.
Smith is still wearing a brace for drop foot but you can’t tell watching him run or change directions. And he doesn’t think about it.
“It’s a custom brace and for me it’s about playing the game of football,” Smith said. “That is the only thing that is on my mind when I’m out there on the field.
“We have a plan for everything we have done. We have started off slow. We have continued to progress. We have succeeded. So I don’t anticipate that stopping. It was a matter of getting out there and going. I was really excited. It’s a great accomplishment. But this is the first of it.”
While the Cowboys owner is betting on Smith becoming a dominant player again, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli doesn’t know what to expect.
“I know his talent level, his character and how much he works at it,” Marinelli said. “I just take everything day by day, see how he does progress and give him a little bit more each day, and just coach him.”
The Cowboys took a chance on Smith with an early second-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft because of his attitude as much as his talent.
And he hasn’t disappointed.
“If you remember, we picked fairly high in the second round and there certainly was a buzz about other people taking him later in that round and him not being able to get to the top of the third round,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We went through the whole process with him. The reports from Notre Dame were off the charts and our experiences with him leading up to the draft were off the charts. He hasn’t disappointed. The expectations for him as a guy were really high and I think he’s exceeded all of them.”
The Cowboys are hoping the payoff starts now.