FRISCO, Texas -- Even though Jaylon Smith is not expected to do anything of consequence on the field during the Dallas Cowboys' rookie minicamp the next few days, all eyes will be trained on the linebacker anyway.
His surgically repaired left knee is 100 percent, and the nerve issue that has affected his foot is said to be improving to the point that he might not need a brace when the season starts.
Smith is used to the attention. He was the star of Notre Dame’s defense and one of the best players in the country in 2015. If not for the injury suffered against Ohio State, Smith would have been a top-five pick, perhaps selected ahead of Ezekiel Elliott.
The eyes trained on Smith over the next few days will be out of curiosity. All he did last season was rehab, mostly out of the media’s view, in a slow process he endured with a smile on his face and his “Clear Eye View” motto at the ready.
"It's something I've been living by for a few years now," Smith said. "It kind of was created in college.
"A focused vision setting out on something that you have to be able to see it clear and a determined belief. You have to believe in yourself. You have to have self-belief, belief in God that you can accomplish what he wants you to accomplish. And then earned dreams: how bad do you want it, putting that work in."
The Cowboys will keep Smith out of on-field drills during the rookie minicamp but only because he has been doing everything in Phase 2 of the offseason program with the veterans. When the Cowboys start their organized team activities later in the month and convene for a June minicamp, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said the plan is to work Smith every other day.
When training camp comes in July in Oxnard, California, Jones does not believe Smith will have any restrictions.
“It’s going to be a process,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “I know everybody’s going to want to analyze each practice, each practice he misses, each exercise he does out there. I’ve got a little of that in me, too, looking at a guy like that and what he can do for us. But at the end of the day we’ve just got to see how he progresses and not overdo it with him because he hasn’t been out playing competitive football.”
The last time that happened came Jan. 1, 2016, against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Smith was hurt when he was pushed in the back with his left foot planted in the turf, causing his knee to twist awkwardly. Smith tore the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his knee and suffered damage to the peroneal nerve.
The nerve damage, more than the tears of the ligament, scared many teams off from drafting the All-America linebacker.
The Cowboys took Smith in the second round, No. 34 overall, because they have an owner who also serves as the general manager and has the type of job security that making a poor pick will not affect his status. Jerry Jones was bullish on Smith’s chances to overcome the serious knee injury the day Dallas drafted him, and he might be more bullish on those chances a year later.
So is Smith.
“It’s going to be an opportunity to be able to be great and contribute to the team,” Smith said.
He continues to wear a brace to help with the case of drop foot. Smith said he's not sure he will need it when the season starts, but does not believe it will hinder his play if he has to wear it.
There is no way of knowing how well Smith will play this season. There is optimism and hope, but there are also the realities of the injury. Most of the players to have played with the brace have been offensive linemen. Indianapolis Colts linebacker Sean Spence has been able to recover from nerve damage from a knee injury suffered in his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he does not need a brace.
“We’re going to be smart about it,” Stephen Jones said. “Jaylon, he’s a franchise player that I think is going to be around here many, many years, and you don’t want to do anything that is not in his best interests. I think everybody is curious as to how this is going to work, but I just think we feel very optimistic that he’s going to be playing for the Cowboys this year and making a difference.”
That’s Smith’s clear-eyed view, too.
“I’m very focused,” Smith said, “and I’m committed to being successful.”