But Sunday's game at San Francisco is no nostalgia trip for the Cowboys' young right tackle.
Smith was a first-team All-America honoree by The NFL Draft Report and in 2010 won the Morris Trophy, which is given annually to the Pac-10's premier offensive lineman based on a vote by the conference's defensive linemen. A concensus first-team all-conference player and USC's offensive lineman of the year after allowing just one sack all season, Smith has enjoyed a history of success on the west coast.
But when the Cowboys head to Candlestick Park for Sunday's game, Smith said he expects to feel no tugs of sentimentality. He didn't live near the Bay Area — he played his high school football at Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley, Calif., about an hour east of Los Angeles, and he never felt any kind of fondness for the 49ers … or any other NFL team.
"I didn't have a favorite team as a kid," Smith said. "I wasn't a 49ers fan, a Raiders fan, a Chargers fan … I just didn't have one.
Smith said that like many NFL rookies, he feels relieved to have his first regular-season game behind him ("exhibition games aren't even close to the same," he said). But he said that despite getting his NFL career started Sunday night in the Cowboys' loss to the New York Jets, it is premature to think he won't have pre-game jitters when Dallas and San Francisco square off Sunday.
"I was (nervous before Sunday's game against the Jets), but I'm always nervous, before every game," he said. "I have been that way ever since I started playing football, through last year at ‘SC.' I just get kind of (wound up) before games."
In San Francisco, Smith and the Cowboys' young offensive line will face a defense he said will not have as much movement in its front seven as the Jets showed last Sunday. But the player who line up across from Smith most of the night will present a real challenge, Smith said.
Defensive end Ray McDonald is in his fifth season (all with the 49ers) out of the University of Florida. He had six tackles and a sack against the Seahawks in the Niners' season opener.
"He's a high-motor guy who looks like he plays hard on every play," Smith said. "I can't slack off against a guy like that at all."
The Smith-McDonald matchup should be an interesting matchup of styles. Playing in a 3-4 scheme that isn't very different from the Cowboys' defense that asks defensive ends to tie up blockers so linebackers can run free to the ball, McDonald (like Justin Smith at the other defensive end spot) relies more on strength and intelligence than elite quickness (he has just six sacks in his career). Smith, on the other hand, is a rare athlete for a player who carries over 300 pounds on his 6-5 frame.
Smith has benefitted from playing beside veteran guard Kyle Kosier, who flipped over from the left side to the right this year. But he said he settled in against the Jets after the initial plays of the game. How quickly he increases his comfort level in the Dallas blocking schemes could go a long way toward determining quarterback Tony Romo's chances of staying healthy through the season and will play a big part in how efficient the Dallas offense is in 2011.