FRISCO, Texas — The absence of starting defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins against the Buffalo Bills shined a spotlight on first-round rookie Mazi Smith who filled in and played a season-high 36 snaps.
Even though his responsibilities in the A-gap were not the biggest concerns in the run game against the Bills, James Cook ran for 179 yards on his way to helping power Buffalo to 266 yards on the ground as a team.
"I think there's definitely plays he can learn from as far as pad level," head coach Mike McCarthy said about Smith. "But I thought he did a good job fighting, staying in his gap, fitting his gap. It starts with attacking the line of scrimmage, staying square, getting in your gap and then obviously the tackling was probably our biggest issue on run defense."
When asked on Tuesday about his continuing development, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said that he is pleased with his development and the trajectory he is on.
"Mazi has shown us everything that we've wanted when we took him," Jones said. "He does need to continue his development. Mazi went in there and got some good snaps [against Buffalo]. We're gonna need Mazi and we're gonna need him in the middle there. They're gonna come at us in the run game in the future."
In their short time together, Hankins has built a relationship with Smith that has manifested into a student-teacher connection, as the 11th-year run-stopper is encouraged by his effort level on and off the field but realizes there are areas for growth.
"He's been open to learning and understanding the way I play the game to help out his play," Hankins said. "Honestly, I think he's been doing great, an amazing job. Obviously, it'd be nice for him to make a few more plays and more splash plays, but like I told him, the plays will come. Just continue to work, get better and don't really worry about the outside talk. Let's just focus on winning games and getting our job done."
While Hankins didn't have first-round expectations when he first entered the NFL, he did have the regard of being a second-round selection and the expectation to perform quickly – something he said he didn't feel like he did to a level he was comfortable with until halfway through his second season.
"When you get first-round guys at those positions, you would like to see them splash out and do the same things they were doing in college," he said. "To me, I don't think that's realistic, especially for me first getting into the league. I wasn't at this level that I'm at now. All in all, you gotta learn the game and it'll get better. Everything else will fall into place."
When Smith was drafted back in April, his strength and athleticism given his size immediately jumped off the table, and while that hasn't quite translated onto the field on a consistent basis, Hankins sees the potential in his time around him.
"He's quick when he wants to be quick," Hankins said. "He's definitely one of the strongest guys out there, powerful. He's starting to understand the game a little bit more and with him it's just gonna take some time. As he gets more snaps and time to play, I think it will come a lot more natural for him."
One criticism of Mazi Smith in his rookie season has been his slow get-off at the snap, and it's something that Hankins has been working with him at even more in his time as the fill-in starter.
"That's one thing I preach to Mazi," he said. "If you can get off the ball before they can get off the ball, or you engage on them before they can do anything, that's a damn play. It may sound simple, but it's definitely tough to do every single play."
While the noise outside of the Cowboys' facility can get loud regarding Mazi Smith's rookie season, Hankins has been in his corner and remains there as he works through his first-year struggles.
"Just not think so much, just go out there and play," Hankins said about his advice to Smith. "Don't worry about what you're getting. Just attack and run through a wall and rip somebody's head off. Do that and everything will take care of itself."