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Happily blessed

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The most important thing about what's on D'Anthony Smith's mind these days is actually what's not on his mind.

Smith, the Jaguars' second-year defensive tackle, could be excused for thinking on occasion about the Achilles injury that not only cost him his rookie season, but threatened to end his promising career before it began.

And yes, occasionally the thought does creep in.

But during practice? When he's working? When he's making up for the time and experience lost last season and moving from rookie to second-year veteran? Smith said during those times the Achilles is never a thought.

And that, he said, is a very good thing.

"It's all football-related now," Smith said during Jaguars Training Camp, which is concluding Wednesday evening with a closed dual practice against the Atlanta Falcons at EverBank Field.

"The Achilles thing is behind me. It's a thing of the past."

However casually Smith may have referred to his Achilles thing, know this:

The thing was no casual injury, and his return was no casual storyline around the Jaguars this off-season.  And when Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio talks optimistically about Smith's progress, it represents one of the feel-good stories around EverBank thus far this season.

"He's making progress, playing with a better base, playing with better hands inside," Del Rio said. "He's got some explosiveness. He's hungry. I think he's happy to be back with his teammates and practicing and working at it hard. He's getting a little bit better. He's got a ways to go yet but he's definitely doing the things to give him a chance to continue to develop as a football player."

Smith, a third-round selection by the Jaguars in the 2010 NFL Draft from Louisiana Tech, had impressed coaches and personnel officials after his selection, and there were high hopes entering last season's training camp that he could help form a talented, effective young defensive tackle trio with Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton.

Early in camp, he tore his Achilles during a non-contact drill, and while the months that ensued weren't easy, Smith said it was a moment the day after his injury that stayed with him.

"The day after I got hurt, (Jaguars General Manager) Gene Smith brought me into his office and talked to me," Smith said. "He said, 'We're going to get through this. We want you to go away, do your rehab and come back stronger than ever.'

 "It showed he had confidence in me," Smith added. "When he told me that, it showed he had confidence in me, and I didn't want to let him down when I came back."

Smith said he returned to camp 10 pounds lighter than before, and said while the rehabilitation process was difficult, more difficult – and more important to him now – has been the process of continuing to learn to play defensive tackle in the NFL. While he showed potential last off-season, he was barely into his rookie off-season when he was injured.

That means valuable time and experience was lost.

"It's a tough road," Smith said. "I sat out a whole year. This is the professional level at its best. Getting your footwork under you and playing with your hands is a big key, so it's getting back to that."

And there, too, was the matter of simply stepping back onto an NFL field after a year out. Smith said there were anxious moments leading to his first training camp back. Waiting that first hit after an extended absence is difficult for any player, particularly for a young one injured so early in an NFL career.

"Once I got that out of my system, it was pretty much the same," he said.

And once that was out of his system, he said the final stages of doing that he wanted to do, and what he had waited to do – getting back to football; just football – were finally at hand.

"Those are the things the trainers have told me, 'Dude, once you get clear of this, the best thing you can do is erase it from your mind: take care of it, but don't have it be a crutch – play ball how you used to play ball before you got injured,''' he said. "That's what I'm doing."

Really, Smith said, there's no other way to approach it.

"You have a 350-pound man in front of you," he said, laughing. "You have to worry about him more than your ankle."

No one around the Jaguars yet will tell you that Smith is a completed project. He wasn't a finished project before the injury, and he certainly isn't now. The idea is for him to be a consistent force to rotate with Alualu and Knighton and for the Jaguars to be as effective as they believe they can be as a defensive line, they need Smith to continue to progress from the injury – and to play at a level at which there is little or no dropoff in the absence of the two starts.

A preseason game, and two weeks of training camp, doesn't ensure that will be the case, but the early word is that Smith is showing signs of playing at the level they believed attainable this time last season, and considering the nature of his injury – and the relatively brief time since its occurrence – that's reason for Smith to smile these days.

"This time last year, I wasn't even in camp," he said. "It feels like I'm a rookie, but it's like 'OK, you're a rookie, but you're a step up from a rookie, so you're  a 'tweener, between a rookie and a vet.' It's a great feeling.

"Every day I'm truly blessed. I get up and thank God for that every day, for allowing me to play this game again. Most people have this injury and they're done. To come back, I'm happily blessed.''

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