FRISCO, Texas — The Aldon Smith hype train has traveled far in one week of Cowboys practices.
Ask head coach Mike McCarthy and he’ll tell you the defensive end jumps out.
“If you walked away from practice, you’d say, ‘Hey, who the hell was No. 58?’ That’s my thought when he walked out on the field for the first time,” McCarthy said Thursday.
Ask Dak Prescott—whom Smith has swatted a pass from and gone flying to avoid hitting—and the quarterback will tell you his new teammate doesn’t show the rust of player whose last NFL game appearance was in November 2015.
“He’s a monster,” Prescott said. “Damn sure doesn’t look like he hasn’t played in five years. Doesn’t play like it. Energy would never tell you that. Very fortunate to have him.”
Ask defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and he’ll oscillate between the “awesome size” and “impressive” big-man frame Smith fills.
“From a physical standpoint, there’s really not a whole lot of limitations,” Nolan said Wednesday. “He understands football very well.”
But Smith, Nolan and McCarthy all divert from the physical gifts when considering the key to rediscovering a first-round draft pick who notched a league-record 33 1/2 sacks in his first two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
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All emphasize how Smith will need to jell with his defensive-line teammates. Good news for Cowboys fans: So far, Smith’s grading well on that front, too.
“I like the way Aldon, No. 1, interacts with the other players, to be honest with you,” Nolan said. “He’s a team player. He’s got a lot of personality [and] I see their chemistry. That’s so important, not only on the defensive line, but in the defense.”
Smith signed with the Cowboys on April 1 to a one-year deal worth $2 million and a chance of up to $2 million more in incentives. He moved to Dallas on May 1 before he was reinstated May 20 from his indefinite substance-abuse suspension. He had been clean since July 2019, a person with knowledge of his reinstatement process told USA TODAY Sports. The person was granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of substance-abuse suspensions.
Smith was eligible to apply for reinstatement as early as 2016, after a year away. The league factors in criminal activity, arrests and convictions in determining whether a player merits reinstatement. Smith’s off-field issues since 2015 also have included arrests on suspicions of domestic violence (he later pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges in the case), a hit-and-run and DUI.
He doesn’t take for granted his improbable return.
Smith felt physically ready before training camp actually arrived, preparation he credits to his work at Jay Glazer’s Los Angeles gym, Unbreakable Performance Center, and sessions with a North Texas trainer. But—and he acknowledges, he didn’t even tell his teammates at the time—actually taking an NFL field again to practice was surreal.
“I was thinking in my head, ‘It’s been a long road,’” Smith said. “Being back on the field after that much time off was a blessing. … I was just really grateful.”
Smith’s seemingly quick acclimation to new teammates isn’t an accident. There is nothing he missed more from 2015-20, he says, than the brotherhood of a locker room.
“The camaraderie,” Smith said. “Just being with the guys, working with the guys and seeing each other get better. Making plays, watching film, watching what we did good, watching what we did wrong, being able to laugh about it. Being able to help, being able to get help. All the interaction that a lot of people don’t see and actually builds a team into being a close-knit group.
“That’s something that I missed and I enjoy, and I’m glad I’m back around it.”
His teammates have said they are glad to have him, too. Four-time Pro Bowl defensive Everson Griffen assessed Smith as playing, running and striking well in spite of his lengthy hiatus. Returning defensive captain DeMarcus Lawrence touted Smith’s charisma and personality as a fit on a line in which Lawrence and Smith have complemented each other in camp, as each tries multiple positions and stances.
“We just click,” Smith said of Lawrence.
Coaches are preaching caution with tackling in practice so far. McCarthy concedes that the longer a player is away from the game, the harder it is to succeed upon return. But Smith has met all benchmarks in the team’s acclimation phases. He’s heavier than he’s played at before but said he’s learned to leverage that weight and find flexibility.
“Makes the power more powerful,” he said.
Smith steers clear of thinking too deeply about the Cowboys’ Sept. 13 opener at the Rams. Instead, he locks in on mastering his scheme and rhythm. Even with his new build, he doesn’t consider himself rusty—just constantly polishing.
“Aldon is off to a good start,” McCarthy said. “He’s impressive.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.