Jaylon Smith doesn’t anticipate any mental hurdles when he returns to University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday night, the site where he sustained a major knee injury on Jan. 1, 2016.
On that fateful night at the Fiesta Bowl, Smith saw his draft status plummet and a long road to recovery arise. He tore the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments and had nerve damage in his left knee that sidelined him his rookie season in the NFL.
But Smith has returned and finds himself as the starting middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys heading into Monday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals. He’s focused on that rather than the venue.
“I don’t focus on the past and things like that,” Smith said. “We’re looking for a great opportunity to play against a great team in the Arizona Cardinals, looking forward to going out there and getting their all.”
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So there’s no mental hurdle?
“No, no, no. None whatsoever,” Smith said. “From the start, God got me. You know what I mean? So I don’t go out there worrying about anything of that nature.”
Smith, playing for Notre Dame, sustained the injury in the first quarter when then-Ohio State offensive lineman Taylor Decker shoved him from behind and Smith’s foot stuck awkwardly in the ground.
Smith got encouraging words on the field from then-Ohio State running back and current Cowboys teammate Ezekiel Elliott. Smith and Elliott were teammates at a high school all-star game.
“It meant a lot, just the everlasting love, a brotherly love that we’ve had for each other since our high school days,” Smith said. “To have that opportunity to play against each other, it was great. And I went down and he came over and he basically just told me that he was with me, and now we’re teammates [with the Cowboys] and all is well.”
Smith has fared OK early on in the NFL. He’s leading the team with 23 tackles, according to the coaches’ film, but would like to make more impact plays.
He has yet to record a tackle for loss or pass breakup, but has forced one fumble. Smith isn’t alone in that department, though. After all, no defensive player had a standout game against the Broncos, who ran away to a 42-17 victory.
“It can definitely be better,” Smith said. “I have extremely high expectations for myself and my play and I want to be perfect. I strive for perfection, so you know, [I’m] really looking forward to playing against the Cardinals [on] Monday night.”
Simply getting back in game action was a significant accomplishment for Smith. It’s important to remember that teams took him completely off their draft boards because they felt he may never play again.
Leading the Cowboys in tackles is another feat but it’s just part of the process. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli sees him doing more good things moving forward.
“Nothing surprises me with him, really,” Marinelli said. “He’s gaining ground with every step. He’s got really extraordinary talent and he’s really fast.
“He hustles and he does all of the things right. He’s just going to get better and better each week.”
Teammate and fellow linebacker Sean Lee agreed. Lee himself has battled back from injuries, and understands what Smith has gone through to return.
“He’s handled himself really well for a guy transitioning not only from an injury, but really coming from college and not playing at all to the NFL. The guy has done unbelievable,” Lee said. “It’s a testament to his work, to his personality, the type of person he is. I think he’s played great. He’s going to continue to improve.”
Smith will try to take another step forward Monday night at the stadium where he almost lost everything.
Cowboys at Cardinals
7:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN