FORT WAYNE, Ind. — The Dallas Cowboys were an unmitigated mess in 2018, falling even as low as 3-5 after the bye week, but linebacker Jaylon Smith says the adversity helped the club finds its identity.

Left for dead, Dallas finished 7-1 down the stretch for a 10-6 record, wrapped up the NFC East, and even won a wild-card playoff game. Heading into a new season, Smith knows why there is excitement about The Star in Frisco.

"Just because we understand our identity," Smith said at his "Earn Your Stripes" camp Friday at St. Francis University. "Last year we spent a lot of time finding who we were as a team, as a unit, individually. So, we know that we’re a team that’s going to play hard-nosed football."

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The first part of the team's identity is to pound the rock with running back Ezekiel Elliott on offense, which will open up the passing game and play-action for quarterback Dak Prescott. However, there is more to the Cowboys' "hard-nosed" identity than melting clock and taking air out of the football.

Said Smith: "Then with the defense we’re going to run to the ball. It’s about speed, speed, speed, physical, and stopping the run. That’s our mentality. We got to execute that every week.”

Smith was an emerging leader for the defense. Starting 16 games at middle linebacker, the former 2016 second-round pick collected 121 combined tackles, 4.0 sacks, four pass deflections, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown. Now, the former Notre Dame product is looking for more, and true to the theme of his "Earn Your Stripes" camp that he co-hosted with his brother, Rod Smith, the linebacker is not satisfied.

"That’s the mindset for me individually being the leader of the defense now and quarterback of the defense," said Smith. "It’s my duty to make sure that everyone is locked and loaded. I’m prepared. I’m ready.”

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Smith is part of a youthful team that won its first playoff game last season after three straight winning seasons. Dallas doesn't just want to return to the playoffs and fizzle out by the wild-card round.

"Just to feel and taste how close that we were, but we’re a young team," Smith said. "We’re older now and we’re energized. So, we’ll be ready. We just got to work now today.”

Do you think the defense will improve upon its stellar play from 2018 in the upcoming season? Share your thoughts on the talented squad with Mark in Twitter @therealmarklane.