FRISCO, Texas –Jaylon Smith knows the exact moment he felt like himself again on the football field.
"Week 9," he said, "was really that turning point where I really felt like I'm back to the old Jaylon Smith that you guys are used to seeing.
"I started freshman year of high school and it took about six games. Then I started my freshman year at Notre Dame and it took about seven games. No surprise that at the highest level it took about nine. I'm back."
Not just back on the field. Back making plays.
Back to a point where, at the end of his first NFL season at linebacker, Smith says "I feel elite again."
To many, none of the above seemed possible two years ago when Smith tore the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee, along with peroneal nerve damage that affected the movement in his left foot.
Following surgery performed by Dr. Dan Cooper, the Cowboys' team physician, the team took a calculated risk drafting Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft. Smith worked tirelessly with the medical and athletic training staff during his 'redshirt' rookie season.
The nerve began to regenerate, and Smith had a productive training camp this past summer.
But the results of his first season were astounding, given what he's been through:
Smith played the second-most defensive snaps of all Cowboys linebackers (578 of 1,048, just behind Sean Lee's 625) and ranked second on defense in tackles (99, just behind Lee's 118).
He acknowledges it wasn't all perfect, particularly early on with increased snaps while starters Lee and Anthony Hitchens were injured.
"I was thrown in the fire and I was put to the test," Smith said. "In a lot of ways I succeeded and then in some ways I had to fail in order to get that growth. But that's a part of the game of football. It's a part of growing as a human as well."
When Lee and Hitchens were both healthy, Smith's snap average dropped from 46.0 to 22.1 – probably more in line of the Cowboys' plan for him in his first season.
"I do think early on in the year, because of injuries we had at the linebacker position, he probably played more than we wanted him to," head coach Jason Garrett said. "Once we got both Hitchens and Sean Lee back in the lineup and he got into a more comfortable role, I think he played better. I think he learned from the experiences early on and he got better as a result of them, but I think he was in a better place as the year went on and his production per play increased and really improved as a player. I think he became more and more confident and it showed up in the plays that he was making."
Indeed, Smith said his timing, recognition and movements seemed to improve each week.
All of those areas take time for any young linebacker – major injury comeback aside.
For his efforts to return and play at a high level, Smith's teammates voted him their Ed Block Courage Award winner for the 2017 season.
"Just going through the experience and understanding how to play certain situations, understanding how teams attack you," Lee said. "A lot of times you go out there and you say, I wish I would have played this play differently. It's just a learning curve, and he's handled it really well. For him to play as well as he has as early as he has, it's a testament to his work."
Smith said he isn't having any further tests on how much the nerve in his left leg is re-firing.
"All that stuff is out of the picture. It's just a matter of timing," he said. "But I can tell you and my play can tell you from the past weeks that I'm back."
And the Cowboys agree with Smith's belief that 2017 was just "the beginning."
"There's no doubt in our minds he'll continue to grow," Garrett said. "I think he'll continue to get better physically. I think his knee will get stronger and he'll be able to be more natural and instinctive.
"If you ask guys who have hurt their knee and had major surgery, they always talk about that second year. After they get that first one under their belt they always seem to be better and better. So I think physically he'll improve. He'll have another true offseason under his belt. I think he's understanding more and more what we're asking him to do. So I think those are all areas that are going to help him improve once he comes back in '18."