Jaylon Smith not only plays but stars for Cowboys in debut

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Jaylon Smith just became one of the best stories in the NFL. He not only played but played well in his NFL debut 20 months after a potentially career-threatening knee injury.

“It’s a long time coming,” Smith said. “I’m back. It’s a blessing to be back out there.”

Smith started, as expected, at middle linebacker, but he did not split time with Justin Durant. Smith played most of the game and finished with seven tackles and a forced fumble. Only Sean Lee had more tackles for the Cowboys, with eight.

“Of course, we had Durant sitting over there ready to go,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “Jaylon just kept gaining on it, kept going. When you look at several of the younger players that really distinguish themselves in this game, he’d be right at the top of the list. I’m really proud of him. He made some big plays for us out there, so I’m happy for him.”

Smith tore the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee during Notre Dame’s bowl game on Jan. 1, 2016, damaging the peroneal nerve. The Cowboys drafted Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft and used last season as a redshirt season as they waited for the nerve to regenerate.

“Now it’s here, and it’s time to play well,” said Smith, who played 27 snaps in the preseason. “I’m here, and I’m loving it. With everything that happened to me, the spotlight was on. I did a great job handling it well and persevering, stick to who you are and what you’ve done.”

Smith isn’t eligible for rookie of the year despite not playing last season, the Associated Press confirmed, but he now becomes one of the leading candidates for comeback player of the year.