FRISCO, Texas – There's a dozen ways to describe Aldon Smith's return to organized football, but Mike McCarthy's method might be the best.
The Cowboys' first-year head coach was asked recently for his early impressions of the veteran pass rusher, who is getting his first NFL snaps in almost five years after a lengthy suspension.
"I would say that if you walked away from practice, you'd say, 'Hey, the who hell was No. 58,'" McCarthy said. "That's my thought when he walked out on the field for the first time."
McCarthy isn't alone. From the time he announced his return to the league by signing with the Cowboys, Smith's 6-4, 280-pound frame has been turning heads. Now that he's using that bulk to reach the backfield, he's that much more impressive.
Through three padded practices, few people are more qualified to attest to that than Dak Prescott, who has been watching Smith scream around the left side of his line for most of the past week.
"He's a man. He's a monster," Prescott said. "Damn sure doesn't look like he hasn't played in five years. Doesn't play like it. Energy would never tell you that."
Smith's addition to the Dallas pass rush has been one of the most noticeable developments of this young training camp. Despite that lengthy absence, the 30-year-old clearly put a lot of work into readying for his return. And watching him partner with DeMarcus Lawrence to make life difficult on the Cowboys' offensive line, it looks like he never left at all.
"I don't know if I told any of the guys, but I was thinking in my head, 'It's been a long road,'" Smith said on Thursday. "Being back on the field after that much time off was a blessing and it was a little surreal. But I was very prepared and excited to go out there and put things together."
It'd be unwise to get too hyped about training camp results – especially against an offensive line that has been depleted by injury during this first week. Still, it sure looks like Smith is putting things together awfully well.
Through these early practices, he's rushing from multiple different positions and stances. He's pushing the pocket with power, provided by his new frame, and he's showing the ability to bend that made him an All-Pro eight years ago in San Francisco.
"He moves very well," said defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. "He's dominant. He's long. From a physical standpoint, there's really not a whole lot of limitations."
The transition has been smooth enough that Smith was even hesitant to say he was rusty, so much as getting up to speed.
"I would call it polishing up on things I've always wanted to work on," he said. "And obviously, with the time I've missed, there is some catching up I've got to do. but everything is happening and everything is looking good."
The one coach who probably knows Smith better than anyone is defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who coached him San Francisco. Because he had a front-row seat of the things Smith was doing early in his career, Tomsula doesn't seem to be as surprised by his success.
"I've known Aldon for a long time … I think the world of Aldon," Tomsula said. "He's a truly good person, somebody that is very dear to my heart. There's a lot of special in Aldon Smith."
As for Smith the player, Tomsula was quick to point out that Smith's success early in his career – getting 33.5 sacks in the first two years – led to a promotion for Tomsula, who was the head coach of the 49ers in 2015.
"Well, he got me a pay raise," Tomsula said. "He's very good. A lot of times, the game happens naturally for people. He's one of those rare individuals that it comes natural to him. But he also works at it. He's trying to improve. Every day is a work day."
It's an exciting storyline all on its own. Factor in the addition of Everson Griffen, and all of a sudden the defensive end spot is one of the biggest talking points on this roster. Between the trio of Griffin, Smith and Lawrence, the Cowboys now employ seven Pro Bowl appearances and two All-Pro designations on the edge of their defensive line.
And if the talent wasn't enough, there's the personas to consider. Lawrence has long been one of the most engaging personalities on this roster, while Griffen has already made his excitement about joining the team abundantly clear. For Smith, it's that type of bond building and fun that he missed dearly during his years away.
"I feel like we've known each other for a long time," Smith said. "Me and the guys get along. We joke around. We enjoy each other. We work well together. It's made this whole adjustment or however you would put it, just easy. I enjoy being around the guys. I feel like they enjoy my company."
It was hard to know what to think when Smith signed in the spring. It's hard to set expectations for a guy who has been away from the game for so long. But if the first week of practice is any indication, it'll be hard to keep those expectations down for long.