It's not often the ability of an NFL player to move his pinky toe up and down is a noteworthy event. When it comes to Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, however, the small mobility is a notable stepping stone.
A lengthy feature on Smith by Jeff Sullivan posted on the team's official website, notes that in the "last few weeks" the linebacker has progressed to being able to move his little toe up and down, which is a sign of positive nerve regeneration in his left leg. The tiny movement came after he reached the bigger mark of flexing his other toes and lifting his foot in April.
These seemingly normal movements are notable for Smith, who suffered nerve damage, which created drop foot, when he tore his ACL playing for Notre Dame in a bowl game on Jan. 1, 2016.
The road to recovery has been long and grueling, but it appears after hitting the field some this offseason that Smith is ready to make more strides in the coming weeks.
Smith told David Heldman of the team's official website, in an interview previously shot and posted on Monday, he's getting back to normal.
"Man, it's been great," Smith said of offseason workouts. "Whenever I'm out there, I'm full-go. I'm full throttle, and I'm feeling like myself again. So it's a great feeling."
"To be able to compete at a high level," Smith said when asked of his expectations for training camp. "That's something that I'm really looking forward to, back in Oxnard, Calif., being able to be on the field again and running and competing with my guys is something that I'm looking forward to. I'm looking forward to being out there."
The Cowboys will likely ease Smith into camp workouts. Coach Jason Garrett indicated earlier in the offseason that the linebacker likely wouldn't practice back-to-back days.
Smith is practicing with a "custom-made Richie Brace, with plastic, bendable, hinged sides, much like an air-cast for a high-ankle sprain," per the team's official website. The hope is the mobility allowed by the brace will allow the linebacker to regain most of his speed and change-of-direction.
"I've heard some doctors and trainers, who haven't ever seen Jaylon, say that there's no way he could play in the NFL with an AFO brace, and they're right," Cowboys associate athletic trainer/director of rehabilitation Britt Brown said. "With the brace he is wearing, Jaylon can take his natural linebacker stance and come off the ball the same way he would without the brace."
A Cowboys defense that lost several pieces this offseason, and had several more suspended to start the season, desperately needs Smith to get as close to 100 percent as possible.
When Dallas opens the regular season versus the New York Giants, it will be more than 20 months since Smith played in a meaningful football game. The question the Cowboys hope is answered during training camp and preseason is that Smith shows signs he can be the athlete he was before the injury.
"I'm not going to say no... We have to go through contact," Brown said when asked could ever get back to his pre-injury ability. "We also have more seasons ahead. The nerve could regenerate more after this coming season. No one can predict that. We're in a good place right now."
The hope is that good place turns into an even better one in the coming weeks.