Devin Smith has had 10 months to think.
About life. About football. About his future.
The New York Jets wide receiver has been sidelined since last December with a knee injury that cut short his rookie season — and threw his career into uncertainty.
“Really, you just realize that this game can be taken away from you,” Smith said. “It was taken away from me for a couple of months. It sat me down, man.”
Smith is inching closer to a return to the game he has missed. He spent the first six weeks of the season on the reserve/physically unable to perform list and is eligible to begin practicing next week.
The Jets would have 21 days from the day Smith first practices to activate him to the 53-man roster or place him on season-ending injured reserve.
“I haven’t done any football in about nine months, so it’s been a long time coming,” Smith said. “I can’t wait. It has seemed very, very long.”
Smith was a second-round pick out of Ohio State last year, a speedster with terrific athleticism, as evidenced by his eye-popping one-handed touchdown catch against Miami of Ohio in 2012 — long before Odell Beckham Jr. made those acrobatic types of grabs a routine sight in the NFL.
The Jets drafted him with the hope that he would provide a field-stretching element to the offense. But Smith injured a lung and a few ribs in training camp, sidelining him for several weeks. Once he returned, he struggled through the ups and downs of life as a rookie, trying to find his place on the team.
Against Tennessee on Dec. 12, 2015, Smith was covering a punt in the third quarter when his right knee gave out. He was carted off the field and found out a short time later his season was done because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
He finished with just nine catches for 115 yards and a touchdown — and plenty of disappointment.
A humbled Smith used the time since to re-evaluate himself while he was rehabbing, and his 16-month son Devin Jr. has had as big an impact on him as any coach or teammate.
“I got to watch him grow up a little bit and it really put some perspective to my life,” Smith said. “My little boy, it’s like he learns something new every day. It’s such a blessing to watch him grow. And I’m able to do what I do. Everything’s all good.”
Smith is getting better at just the right time as the Jets’ receiving corps took a major hit when Eric Decker was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. After Brandon Marshall and Quincy Enunwa, New York will have to rely on several inexperienced players , including rookies Robby Anderson, Jalin Marshall and Charone Peake.
“I just can’t wait to come back and do whatever I can to just help this team,” Smith said. “We’re down a couple of wide receivers, so adding me in, I think would just be good for all of us.”
Smith said he has been running and cutting every day, and his knee has felt good. He doesn’t think he has any limitations at this point and just needs to work his way back into game shape.
“In terms of practicing and doing some individual (drills) and getting my feet wet again, I’m looking forward to that, and I feel I will be able to do that,” he said. “In terms of playing in a game or how much playing time I’d get, I’m going to leave that up to the coaches.”
After a lost rookie season, Smith seemed a bit of an afterthought during training camp because of the uncertainty surrounding his knee and the influx of young receivers.
Smith never doubted he’d be back, though, even if people outside the facility were writing him off.
“That’s really kind of how it’s been ever since I was in high school,” said Smith, who was a football, track and basketball star while growing up in Massillon, Ohio. “Everybody forgot about me and I burst on the scene. It’s nothing new to me. I’m just sticking to the script and staying focused, and I’ll do what I’ve got to do.”
Coach Todd Bowles said he’s “hopeful” Smith will be able to get back in pads “in the next couple of weeks.”
Smith will just be happy not having to watch games on TV, instead of the sideline, and wishing he could make a play.
“It’s been very tough to watch the team take a couple of L’s and stuff like that,” he said. “During the preseason, when I was on the sideline, I would feel like my heart would race. I was just so anxious to get back out there. It’s really tough just seeing your team not doing so well and you can’t even be out there to try to do something to help the team.
“That’s what I’m looking forward to the most, me being back with everybody and helping.”