The Cowboys selected Smith in the second round last spring knowing it was unlikely the linebacker would be able to play this season because of a serious knee injury that occurred just over a year ago in Notre Dame's loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The injury included nerve damage.
Smith, who spent the season on the reserve/non-football injury list, said the nerve is regenerating and he can feel things now in his foot that he couldn't feel recently. He said tests have been positive.
"I'm getting my 4.4 speed back, I'll tell you that," Smith said. "That's how well I'm moving. You wouldn't be able to tell if you saw me run."
While he said he believes he could have played late this season, the Cowboys never had him practice when they had the chance for a three-week stretch in October.
"It's a thing where I can come back, but you want to take things slow," Smith said. "You want to make sure that everything is right regardless of if I can play or not right now. We're just taking the long-term approach. That's something we had in mind from Day 1, and it just came down to making a decision. And what was best for all of us was to get the whole offseason and be ready to go next year."
Coach Jason Garrett did not want to discuss Smith's medical issues but said he has made "tremendous progress."
"He's worked very hard at it and doesn't surprise us one bit," Garrett said. "One of the reasons he was so attractive to us as a player is just the approach that he's taking. Those were the reports from the people around him for three years at Notre Dame and that's been our experience with him. Obviously he had a serious knee injury last year, but we felt like, 'Hey, if anybody can come back from this, this is the guy who can.' He's got an incredible attitude, always upbeat, always positive, always working very hard."
Smith, considered a top-five pick before the injury, won't be able to take the field with the team until May, when organized team activities begin. He continues to wear a brace for his foot, but he said he could play with the brace if needed. If the nerve fully regenerates, he would not need the brace.
"It's not a limiting factor at all," Smith said. "Now that I'm comfortable with the push off and everything, I'm getting my linear speed back like I said. I'm running a 4.5 right now so. ... But with the pace that I'm keeping up, you could tell that I'm definitely getting my linear speed back and the change of direction and things like that. I mean, I feel great."