Jaylon Smith is going to do something some teams never thought he’d do on Sunday — play in an NFL game.
Smith’s return from a severe knee injury is among the feel-good storylines for the Dallas Cowboys going into the season opener against the New York Giants on Sunday night. But this isn’t a time for Smith to reflect on his journey back to the field.
“Right now it’s all about executing the game plan that we put together and it’s something I’m all in,” Smith said. “The past is a bucket of ashes. For me, those things they’ve occurred, they’ve happened, but it’s about living in the now. It’s Week One. It’s time to prepare.”
Smith returned to game action last month, playing 12 snaps against the Indianapolis Colts and 15 against the Oakland Raiders in preseason games.
The Cowboys are expected to keep him on a snap count against the Giants, although he isn’t worried about it. Instead, he’s ready to be the starting middle linebacker when the 2017 season gets underway.
With regular starter Anthony Hitchens sidelined with a knee injury, Smith is expected to start and split time with veteran Justin Durant at middle linebacker,
Smith never doubted this moment would come.
“I knew it would come,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of God’s timing.”
Smith, 22, tore the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee, and had damage to the peroneal nerve during Notre Dame’s bowl game on Jan. 1, 2016.
Some teams felt that Smith wouldn’t be able to recover from that injury, and took him off their draft boards completely. But the Cowboys felt good about Smith, partly because one of their physicians, Dan Cooper, performed the knee surgery.
Smith described Cooper as someone who has become a “father figure” to him.
“Someone I entrusted in my darkest moment,” Smith said. “It’s a threat to all players, getting hurt. And me experiencing that, being able to trust someone to get the job done, it’s definitely a great feeling. Very, very thankful of Dr. Cooper.”
Smith also has an appreciation for the Cowboys believing in his ability to return to form. This is a team that felt comfortable enough to use an early second-round pick on him in the 2016 draft even though he wouldn’t play his rookie season.
“What impresses you the most about him is the kind of person he is and how he’s handled this challenging situation that he’s been in,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Again, that probably more than anything else gave us the confidence to draft him. We felt like we knew what he was all about. And he’s probably exceeded all of those expectations as well.
“His attitude and his work ethic and just the spirit that he has every day has been really impressive. He’s really improved. He’s improved at every turn. He’s gotten better in practice. He’s gotten better in the games. Every time he goes out there, he looks better. He looks more natural. He looks more comfortable. So certainly excited about him.”
Smith said the countless hours spent with the Cowboys training staff, particularly trainer Britt Brown, have finally paid off.
“I thank [Brown] the most because from Day 1, he’s been there,” Smith said. “He’s held my hand. He’s seen me when everything was down, I couldn’t run, I couldn’t sprint, he was there. ... He’s an amazing person. He’s great at his job. Just very thankful for him.”
Smith now hopes to carry everything onto the field. He had a simple, but lofty, response when asked about his own expectations this season.
“Greatness,” Smith said.
Cowboys vs Giants
7:30 p.m. Sunday, KXAS/5