Jaylon Smith's road from the 2016 Fiesta Bowl to Saturday night's preseason game has been a long, arduous and uncertain one.
If you'd only heard his name after seeing him make his first professional tackle, you'd never know it.
Smith reached another milestone in his journey to return from a major knee injury when he saw actual playing time in Dallas' preseason win over Indianapolis. His lone tackle was so encouraging for the locals, the station carrying coverage of the contest named him the player of the game, even though he only participated in a dozen plays.
"I suffered an ACL/LCL injury," Smith said. "Currently recovering from drop foot, but I'm here. I'm happy to be a part of the Dallas Cowboys. Today was remarkable day."
"Really an exciting night for him," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "He's worked really hard to get himself back to this point. To put his Dallas Cowboy uniform on and to go out here at AT&T Stadium and play in a football game, a lot of work has gone into that and it's a real credit to who he is as a guy. ... It's just the start, but it certainly is a good one for him."
For Smith, a linebacker who was a surefire top-10 pick before his injury, his lateral movement is vitally important to his success, but so is his gradual acclimation to the pro game. While he didn't show any noticeable issues related to his injury, Dallas will continue to work him into action slowly. Seated behind Anthony Hitchens and veteran Justin Durant (who was recently cleared to play), there's no rush to get Smith on the field.
The fact he's out there at all is remarkable. If Smith ever reaches the level of play that once made him an All-American at Notre Dame, the Cowboys will have one of the greatest steals in recent draft history. He's one small step closer to the latter after Saturday.