A year ago at this time, Devin Smith was as low as low can be.
The star wide receiver from Ohio State, who was a second-round pick of the New York Jets in 2015, was jobless without any suitors thanks in part to a torn ACL he injured as a rookie and then again in 2017.
With a fiance and two kids to feed, he considered giving up football.
“I was low,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t even go outside. I wouldn’t even leave the house (for a month or two), just because I was so down on myself. Watching all my former teammates that I played college with, all my friends that I know in the NFL playing, and me watching at home, it really, really hurt.”
Smith, labeled a bust by Jets fans, vowed that if he ever got another opportunity to play again, he would make it count.
The Cowboys called in January. Nine months later and Smith is making good on that promise to himself and his family.
It was Smith who caught a 51-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Dak Prescott to spark five consecutive scoring drives in a 31-21 victory against the Redskins last Sunday.
“All the injuries I’ve been through and the time I’ve missed just playing this game,” Smith said Sunday. “Just to be back on the football team, being around these guys – it means a lot. “It feels great just to have this moment.”
He even got a shout from NBA star and fellow Akron (OH.) native Lebron James on Twitter.
There will be more moments to come for the comeback kid,who had three catches for a team-high 74 yards in the game. He not only proved he belongs in the league again but showed he has regained the deep speed to take the top off defenses.
Smith will now be counted on to help fill in for the injured Michael Gallup, who is out 2-4 weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery. Look for Randall Cobb to start opposite Amari Cooper with Smith taking a larger role in the sub-packages.
Ironically, Smith was filling in for a resting Gallup when his number was called on the touchdown. It was vintage Smith, who ran a great route on cornerback Josh Norman and caught a perfect ball from Prescott.
“Devin got an opportunity,” Prescott said. “It was great just to see him get out there and put the boosters on and throw the ball out there and he went under it and it was great. I’m happy for a guy like that who’s had a great camp. Obviously done a really good job up to this point. Now he’s going to just help us out. As you said, he’s got some speed. He can do a lot of things. He’s going to be a big help to this offense.”
He certainly caught the eye of owner Jerry Jones, who couldn’t stop singing his praises after the game.
“One of his real skills is he can really catch and adjust on a deep ball,” Jones said. “That’s been his M.O. since he came out of Ohio State. That is how he made plays at Ohio state. You saw a classic out there. That is really adds a dimension for Dak and our offense.”
The Cowboys have rallied around Smith and his story since he arrived last January. He had 10 catches in just 14 career games with the Jets. His lone NFL touchdown before the 51-yarder against the Redskins came in 2015.
That was before tearing his ACL in December of is rookie year, returning the following December and then re-tearing the same ACL in the spring.
He missed all of 2017 rehabbing and then was released in July 2018.
No one was happier for his performance on Sunday than running back Ezekiel Elliott, his former college teammate at Ohio State.
“He was a phenomenal player in college,” Elliott said. “His years in the league, he’s been dealing with a lot of injuries, so (it’s great) to see him be out there and making big plays like the ones he made today. It’s always good to see your Buckeye brothers doing well. I told everyone he was a special player when we ended up picking him up in the offseason. He proved that he belonged here.”
Prescott agreed that Elliott talked Smith up upon his arrival but Smith’s play, effort and work ethic since he got here is what resonated as inspirational among teammates.
“Obviously him being a college teammate of Zeke, Zeke informed me a little bit,” Prescott said. “And as you get to know a teammate and talking to him, it’s an inspiration. I mean obviously injuries happen and injuries can hurt careers and sometimes derail them, and people can never bounce back. But in this case, you found a guy that this offseason, this training camp, this preseason he really got his confidence back, forgot about those injuries, forgot about all those things and reasons that maybe he couldn’t do it. And he’s here and he’s going to help this team and he’s going to be great for us. He’s an inspiration to many athletes that may get injured.”
It wasn’t an easy task for Smith as he came to the Cowboys on a minimum deal with no promises.
“We liked him a lot coming out of school,” coach Jason Garrett said. “When you have guys that you like and you kind of track them in their careers, you try to understand, ‘What’s happened to this guy?’ Whether he has had success or maybe he had some adversity. With him, a lot of it was injuries, and he just hasn’t been able to kind of get traction in his career yet. We really liked him as a person coming out, we liked him as a player, we felt like he had a lot of ability. We just wanted to give him a chance and kind of get him into the program and see if you can kind of help him grow as a player, help him gain some confidence.”
Undrafted rookie free agent Jon’vea Johnson was an early favorite to nab one of the final receivers spots. But Smith started to rise as camp went on with each passing preseason game.
“He did a really good job in the offseason program and a really good job in training camp,” Garrett said. “But where it really started to shine is when we started playing preseason games. He caught some balls and made some plays, and you could see his confidence grow as he was making those plays. He played better the next week and then the next week. I think he started to get a little bit of his spirit back and his confidence back and it showed up in his play.”
He made the team as the fifth receiver. A concussion to Tavon Austin had him running fourth against the Redskins. Now, he is likely the third receiver during Gallup’s absence.
“I think he is living up to his pedigree,” Jones said. “And so it never was surprising to see it show in training camp or see it show in the spring. He has certainly got speed. He has got a lot of natural ball skills. You are seeing that. He knows how to use it. You saw that at Ohio State. You are seeing it for us. He’s got a big future.”
After what he’s gone through over the past year when he was out of football in 2018, Smith is appreciative of every opportunity he gets now while cherishing the moment.
“It’s not really me trying to prove to people. I know my ability and all my teammates know my ability,” Smith said. “That’s the only thing that matters to me. Every opportunity I get to showcase my skill, I’m here for it.”