Cowboys' Jaylon Smith in 'race to 100 percent' without brace

FRISCO, Texas -- Jaylon Smith does not know where the brace is. It could be somewhere in the Dallas Cowboys’ equipment room or maybe somewhere in the athletic trainers’ offices.

He just knows he no longer needs the ankle-foot orthosis that he wore all of last season. The brace would help the drop-foot condition that developed from the nerve damage he suffered in a serious knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame.

Whenever he was on the practice field for anything more than a walk-through, he had the AFO and the necessary heavy-tape job to wrap his lower left leg.

When he returned for workouts at The Star in February, Smith, in consultation with director of rehabilitation Britt Brown, ditched the brace. The regeneration of the nerve allowed him to raise his foot more than he was able to a year ago. The strength has continued to return.

He went through nine organized team activities without the brace. He will go through three days of the mandatory minicamp that starts Tuesday without one. The plan is to go without it during training camp and the season.

“That’s just something that’s all about God’s time,” Smith said. “It’s going to continue to get better. That race to 100 percent, it’s out of my hand. It’s out of everyone’s hands. We’re just going to continue to ride and I’m excited about it.”

The brace was a reminder to Smith of the steps he had to make in his return. While he knew the brace was required, it was also limiting at times.

“I don’t have to worry about my foot wearing the brace at the end of practice every day,” Smith said. “It was more annoying than kind of damaging.”

And now?

“I feel more free being able to move truly, if you will," he said.

A year ago, Smith was a mix of mystery and curiosity after he missed the 2016 season because of the torn anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee. The ligaments were not the issue in 2017; the foot was.

He played in every game and the Cowboys’ coaches credited him with 99 tackles, but there was a hitch in his movement. The coaches felt they overburdened him early in the season after injuries to Anthony Hitchens and Sean Lee. They felt he was better when kept on something of a snap count of about 25 to 30 per game.

Smith also had to reacquaint himself with the game after so much time off.

“A lot of it just had to do with kind of understanding the scheme and being able to play as fast as I needed to be able to,” Smith said. “It’s something that this year I’ll be able to do at an even higher level. For one, being in the system, and for two, getting healthier.”

There is still some mystery to Smith as 2018 approaches.

The Cowboys drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round with the idea of him playing middle linebacker. So far in the offseason, Smith has taken all of the snaps at middle linebacker with the first team, although the idea of him playing strongside linebacker and also serving as a situational pass-rusher have been floated.

In last week’s OTA that was open to the media, running backs coach Gary Brown got on Smith for being all over the field, filling the run and closing on a dump pass to Ezekiel Elliott, and giving the offense problems.

“I think maybe more than anything else, I think he’s moving more spontaneously now,” coach Jason Garrett said. “You see him maybe get in a compromising position and react his way out of it physically, maybe better than he had before.

"That’s not unique to him. Typically, when guys are coming back from injuries, that’s the final step for them to get back to where they are. Because you get in a lot of different positions when you’re playing football. You’re going against guys. You’re trying to get off of blocks. You have to adjust, redirect. When you’re healthy and ready to go, those things come more naturally. I think you’re seeing a lot more of that from him.”

Smith said he added 8 pounds of muscle in the offseason and his body fat is 3.5 percent. He added yoga to his offseason workouts back in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and continued with it once he got back to Frisco.

“I was curious,” Smith said. “I’m a Gemini, so I’m very observant, and I just thought, ‘Hey, why don’t I try to kind of work on my flexibility more and learning how to breathe and learning how to really focus.’”

Maybe the yoga helped him ditch the brace. As much as the brace was a part of Smith’s story last season, he knows it will always be part of his story.

“I’m going to hold on to it for my documentary,” Smith said. “Coming soon.”