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Practicing in pads 'a great feeling' for Cowboys' Jaylon Smith

OXNARD, California -- It was only eight plays during 11-on-11 work, but for Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, it was something more.

For the first time since suffering a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016, while with Notre Dame, Smith wore pads in a practice. He was involved in eight plays -- six runs and two passes -- and he was able to make an assist on one tackle.

"Just a great feeling, a tremendous feeling to be able to play the game and to really be able to suit up and hit somebody," Smith said. "It's definitely a great feeling. I was excited for that."

Smith suffered torn anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee as his foot jammed into the turf and also endured damage to his peroneal nerve. While some teams were unsure if he would be able to play again, the Cowboys selected Smith in the second round of last year's draft knowing he would be unlikely to play his rookie season.

The nerve has been re-generating and his leg has improved in recent months to the point where the Cowboys believe it will recover completely. He is wearing a custom-made brace to help keep his foot flexed, but it has not kept him off the field.

On his first snap, Smith engaged with an offensive tackle on a running play. Later, he connected with tight end Rico Gathers and was able to force the action. Kellen Moore was able to throw a pass over Smith's head after a play-action fake.

Smith said he could not remember the last time he felt pain in his knee or foot. In the spring, he did not practice three days in a row; but he has participated in the first three days of practice this time around.

"Obviously fired up for him to get in there and get the pads on and start to move around," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "It's great to see that happen."

Dallas linebacker Sean Lee offered his impressions.

"His first practice, I thought he looked great, thought he moved great," Lee said. "I knew he probably would. It's incredible the amount of work that he's put in, how good he looked this spring. Last year, physically, he may not have had a year, but mentally, he got a year under his belt with how he prepared, and that always makes the transition easier."

The Cowboys will be deliberate with Smith's return because of his prolonged layoff from the game, but Smith has eyes on the Sept. 10 opener against the New York Giants.

"For me, I'm very confident, but just got to take it day by day," Smith said. "Everything that they allow me to do, that's what I'll be doing."