When the Dallas Cowboys opened training camp a month ago, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wasn’t quite sure what he could expect from linebacker Jaylon Smith this season.
Unlike gushing and giddy owner Jerry Jones, Marinelli took a measured approach and pumped the brakes on a player who missed all of last season with a devastating knee injury from his final game at Notre Dame in 2016 and was still experiencing nerve damage.
“No, other than I know he’s a very talented and terrific college football player,” Marinelli said in July on if he knew what to expect to get from Smith. “I know his talent level, his character and how much he works at it. The next step is to start to get in Wednesday. He’s never been in an NFL practice. This will be his first chance. I just take everything day and just coach him, coach him.”
Marinelli coached Smith up and the trainers brought him along deliberately in training camp, holding him out of the first two preseason games before letting the 2016 second-round pick get his first game action in 596 days days in the Cowboys 24-19 victory against the Indianapolis Colts last Saturday.
After watching him play 12 snaps and then reviewing the tape, Marinelli has gone from measured to gushing about Smith’s potential.
“Oh boy, good instincts, speed,” Marinelli said. “Man that was a heckuva play he made on that tackle. You could see his speed, got natural instincts with leverage. And he’s just so hungry. Energy. He took another step. Another good step.”
The tackle Smith made was his only tackle of the game. But it was on a tight end out in space after a catch. Smith showed his range and speed.
“I think it was a heckuva play but he’s got great speed, which all our backers (do),” Marinelli said. “Instincts and angles, that’s what you love about these guys.That tackle, it was a good ball play. In space too.”
Marinelli said he hopes to get Smith more snaps on Saturday against the Oakland Raiders and see him against different looks and run fits as he takes the next step in his return. Bruising running back Marshawn Lynch should provide quite the test for Smith’s run fits and physicality.
“You know we didn’t get probably as many runs as we would’ve liked and we would’ve hoped to,” Marinelli said. “But it was fine when he was in. But there’s so many different types of runs. They had a couple things that they ran. I think this week, this is a challenging run offense. Very good run offense. So it’ll be fun to see how we fit it up and know exactly where we’re fitting. They’re a physical group.”
The Cowboys are confident Smith will have an impact during the regular season, though they are still working on his role. He will open as backup to Anthony Hitchens at middle linebacker but could see action in with the regulars short-yardage packages.
The Cowboys still have time to determine that. They are just looking forward to him taking another step in his progression against the Raiders Saturday.
“You’re always trying to do that but you’re not making any definitive decisions in those areas until the time comes,” Garrett said on defining Smith’s role. “The biggest thing for him is to take advantage of the opportunity when he’s got them, and he’s done an outstanding job. We want to see him improve. He’s done an outstanding job of that. He did a really nice job in the game last week. Again, we anticipate him playing in the game Saturday night. We want to see a progression. We want to see him get better. We want to see him handle that work. And then as we’re getting closer to the season, we’ll try to decide what the roles are for him and all the other guys on our team.”