Rookie Tyron Smith a quick study

SAN ANTONIO -- It takes a whole village to raise a right tackle.

At least, that appears to be the case for 20-year-old rookie Tyron Smith, who was penciled into the starting lineup the second the Dallas Cowboys selected him with the ninth overall pick.

Thanks to a one-day interruption of the lockout, Smith picked up a playbook and sat down for a crash-course chalk talk with offensive line coach Hudson Houck the day after he became the first offensive lineman drafted in the first round by the Cowboys in three decades. Then the Cowboys had to press pause on their involvement in Smith's development until he showed up for training camp.

Smith has been stuck on fast-forward since he stepped foot in the Alamodome.

"This is the beginning of a long process," Smith said. "It's something I take serious. I just don't want to fail."

Smith's development might be the most important project of Houck's two tenures in Dallas, and the old offensive line coach has had a lot of help.

Wes Phillips, who was promoted from quality control to assistant offensive line coach this offseason, primarily works with the young centers, guards and tackles. The Cowboys moved guard Kyle Kosier from the left to right side so Smith would have a savvy veteran next to him to guide the rookie when he's confused by the play call or defensive front. Left tackle Doug Free worked with Smith on technique for about 15 minutes after Monday's walk-through. Perennial Pro Bowl outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware had several similar technique teaching sessions with Smith earlier in training camp.

"I showed him a pass-blocking move one day and he used it on me the next," Ware said. "I told him, 'Don't use that on me! Use it on somebody else!' He's a fast learner. He's a real fast learner."

That better be the case. Smith starts protecting Tony Romo for real in Thursday night's preseason opener against the Denver Broncos.

Smith isn't fighting for a job, but there are few NFL players who need the preseason as much as he does, which is why he'll play more snaps than the Cowboys' veteran starters. Robbed of a typical rookie offseason, Smith has one month to get ready to start against the New York Jets in the prime-time season opener on the road.

Smith spent the offseason working out with his agent, Joe Panos, who played guard in the NFL for seven seasons.

"He's learning," owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "But let me tell you something: He is impressive and he's physical and we are improved at right tackle."

It's not exactly bold to boast that the Cowboys are improved at right tackle. Marc Colombo gave the Cowboys some very good years after being claimed off the scrap heap, but it was painfully obvious last season that age and injuries had made the offensive line's emotional leader a liability.

The Cowboys are completely confident that Smith will be a long-term fixture at offensive tackle, perhaps eventually moving to the left side. Physically, he's a phenom. He's a lean 6-foot-5, 310 pounds with hands that look like catcher's mitts connected to arms that remind Houck of Flozell Adams' long, strong levers, plus he has powerful legs and quick feet. His athleticism allows him to get where he needs to go with relative ease, and once he gets his hands on a defender, it's over.

It's that rare combination of tools that had Houck, who has almost three decades of NFL experience, practically begging for the chance to coach his fellow USC alum.

"Are you kidding? One of the best I've coached [athletically]," said Houck, who has worked with all-time greats such as Anthony Munoz, Bruce Matthews, Jackie Slater and Larry Allen.

The question is how quickly Smith can develop mentally and technically to allow him to take full advantage of his freakish athleticism.

His two weeks in San Antonio weren't always pretty -- competing against Ware tends to have that effect on tackles, particularly young ones -- but there were plenty of signs of progress. Smith's performance against Anthony Spencer in the Blue-White scrimmage was especially encouraging (unless you're concerned that Spencer is only average).

"He's handling it extremely well," Houck said of Smith. "The reason is because he really cares. He's really a good worker. I think that's the bottom line. If a guy really cares, he'll get it done and will spend a lot of time on his own to get it done. He will work at it."

Smith has a lot of work to do and not much time to do it before his rookie season begins. At least he'll have a whole lot of help.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.