Long road to recovery nearing end for Cowboys’ Jaylon Smith

OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — Jaylon Smith found himself being greeted by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after the linebacker’s first day off at training camp, and following his first stretch of three consecutive practices in about a year and a half.

Nobody has been more optimistic about Smith’s recovery from a devastating knee injury in his final college game than Jones, the general manager who drafted the Notre Dame standout in the second round even though the Cowboys were almost certain he wouldn’t play in 2016.

Jones got another glimpse of the same Smith who stood out to coach Jason Garrett and the Dallas staff at the NFL combine 17 months earlier: smiling, upbeat, seemingly incapable of having a bad day in the face of an injury so severe there was no guarantee he would play again.

Now Smith has been through his first padded practice with the Cowboys. He anticipates his first preseason game, which he hopes is no more than a couple of weeks away.

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And while there’s still plenty of caution, Smith just smiles and responds rhetorically with “What do you think?” when asked if he’ll be ready for the season opener Sept. 10 against the New York Giants.

“It’s all about patience,” said Smith, who figured to be a top-five pick before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and sustaining nerve damage in his left knee in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State on New Year’s Day 2016.

“But with sitting out a year, I learned so much about myself as a man. Like I said, everything I do is with a clear-eye view. It’s a focused vision, a determined belief and earned dream. So it’s something that I live by and I walk with every single day.”

The “vision … belief … dream” mantra turned up in Smith’s answer about every fifth question in frequent interviews through the first few days of camp. Everyone wants to talk to one of the more intriguing NFL players going into the season. And they want pictures and video of him going through drills.

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After practice, they want to know whether there’s apprehension about a foot brace that’s supposed to help him while the nerve continues to regenerate. Or what the next benchmark might be. Or when he started to believe he could make it all the way back.

“It’s what comes with the territory,” he said. “I understand that and I’m very welcome to it. I answer all the questions truthfully. There’s no hiding anything. It’s just a constant work.”

A year ago, most of what Smith did at training camp was rehab work behind the scenes. While it wasn’t any more complicated than rehab associated with most ACL recoveries, it left him somewhat isolated. Most days he showed up on the field near the end of practice.

Now Smith, an All-American his final season as a junior with the Irish, is on the field from the start. He’s getting work in 11-on-11 drills, which first happened in offseason practices . He’s another one of the guys, which is all he ever wanted to be.

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“Sometimes those days can feel like dog years when you’re coming off an injury,” Garrett said. “He spent so much time on his rehab and worked very hard at it.”

The Cowboys gambled on Smith near the top of the second round coming off a 4-12 season in 2015 because they were hearing others would be interested later in the round. “Sick” was a word used to describe Dallas’ sense if Smith hadn’t been around early in the third.

If Smith becomes a significant piece in a defense seeking playmaking improvement, the draft class will go down as an all-timer for the Cowboys.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth overall pick, and quarterback Dak Prescott, a fourth-rounder, formed a dynamic rookie duo that carried the Cowboys to the best record in the NFC. Sixth-round cornerback Anthony Brown showed plenty of promise.

“When you see him, you believe in him,” vice president of player personnel Will McClay said of Smith. “He’s got some of the ‘Dak factor’ in that people believe in him because of who he is and how he approaches his job and the things that he overcomes and his infectious spirit that he does it with.”

Jones never wavered in his optimism, even suggesting during and after last season that he thought Smith could have helped the Cowboys late in 2016. They lost a divisional playoff at home against Green Bay.

In his camp-opening remarks, Jones had a convoluted way of saying Smith was high enough on their draft board for the risk to be worth it. The owner has always had a hard time containing his enthusiasm for a player who was such an unknown.

“The caveat is what we all wonder, can he play like he had the career playing at that particular time?” Jones said, referring to Smith’s Notre Dame years. “So that’s what we’re here to see. To me, he’s just like looking at a No. 1 draft pick out here coming out on the field for the first time.”

Smith smiles for his owner the same way he does everyone else.