FRISCO, Texas – Strictly speaking, Wednesday was just another day for Jaylon Smith.
The second-year linebacker followed his usual schedule, participating in the Cowboys' OTAs after taking a day off. He did a full complement of individual and special teams drills, followed by a small amount of seven-on-seven participation.
"I'm just doing everything I've been doing, taking it day by day and performing at a high level," Smith said.
The difference was that Wednesday's practice was one of just three to take place in front of reporters, who are allowed to view just one OTA per week. So as far as the cameras are concerned, Wednesday marked the media has seen the young linebacker practicing since he was drafted last year.
"We certainly love the progress that he's made and are excited about what he's been doing up to this point," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "He's getting better and better and better. He's getting more and more comfortable with the football movements."
It's been interesting to follow Smith's progress since the Cowboys revealed their game plan for his offseason. He has practiced twice a week since OTAs started, skipping the Wednesday session. But with OTAs starting on Monday for this final week, Smith took Tuesday off and was available for the open practice.
"It was pretty intense – individual work and getting some seven-on-seven in, some special teams," Smith said.
That's all incredibly encouraging to hear, but it's also just one more step in what has been a long journey. Smith has obviously overcome plenty in the 15-month span since he tore both his ACL and LCL, as well as damaging his peroneal nerve in his final college football game.
But, as defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli pointed out, "pads are everything" – and Smith hasn't quite reached that level yet.
"He's going through Stage 1 here, and it's good stuff so far," Marinelli said. "But to me it's just step by step – progress. Try not to see it more than what it is. It's just day by day progress."
That naturally poses an obvious question – what is the next step. Garrett said that Smith will operate on a similar schedule during the Cowboys' mandatory minicamp next week, meaning he'll go through two limited practices and take one rest day.
Garrett didn't want to detail exactly what the plan would look like for training camp, but he allowed that it would probably be somewhat similar.
"We'll have an analogous plan. I'm not going to say it's going to be exactly the same," he said. "But we'll do something like this with him and some of the other guys who are coming back from injuries."
It makes sense to be follow that approach – not to give a recovering player too much before he's ready. But Garrett was asked if, at some point, he needs to find out what Smith is capable of in order to know if the Cowboys can rely on him.
Even that is a process that will play out step by step.
"Within the confines of what we're asking him to do, we're really cutting him loose him every day," Garrett said. "He's responded so well to that. And as you go day by day and week by week, you increase the threshold."
It'll be fascinating to see how that threshold develops in the coming months, particularly when the Cowboys get to training camp and begin the grind of daily practices – not to mention a whopping five preseason games.
While he's working toward those next steps, Smith said he's proud of how far he's already come.
"Coming in drafted, coming off a severe injury, I understood it was going to be a process, and I truly embraced it," he said. "Now that I'm getting back to football, participating, being a part of the team, being a part of the guys – being a part of this culture that we've built – I'm just embracing it."