FRISCO, TX — The void created by the loss of Leighton Vander Esch to injured reserve with a neck injury can't be overstated, but there's optimism the former All-Pro linebacker will have a chance to return this season. In the meantime, the Dallas Cowboys will look tonewly-signed linebacker Rashaan Evans and, as importantly, an uptick in playing time from Damone Clark.
"I know what I can do," said Clark. "I'm just thankful that I get the chance to play the game that I love to play since I was the age of five."
A former fifth-round pick in 2022 who was forced out to miss the entirety of last year's offseason program following spinal fusion surgery in his neck, Clark was thrust into the limelight midway through the season in the wake of injury at the position.
He flashed in a major way.
This time around, he has the benefit of having participated in the entire offseason program, including training camp and the preseason, and he's taken 58 percent of the defensive snaps in tandem with Vander Esch through the first five games. His role has now instantly expanded.
"I know each week is gonna have challenges," said the former First-Team All-SEC talent out of LSU. "It's football. … I try not to be so hard on myself, but I'm my biggest critic. I'm gonna be hard on myself, but I've got my coaches and they've got my back. These guys in this locker room have got my back. They just tell me to go out there and play.
"The biggest thing is for me to just block out all of the noise. I'm here for a reason. … My body feels good. I had an extra day [this week] to take care of myself and get a jumpstart on the Chargers.
"Now, it's just time to go."
He will miss what Vander Esch not only brings on the field, but also in the locker room. The two share a similar surgical story and, as such, it was Vander Esch who quickly established a close relationship with a rookie linebacker who was trying to mentally navigate the road back from a terrifying surgery to being an impact player in the NFL.
"I work out with Leighton every day," Clark said. "I built that relationship with him going back to last year — he used to come sit in my rehab sessions with me. He's close to my heart. It's tough. I know he'd want me to go out there and ball and take over the defense, so that's what I'm gonna do."
Clark and Evans won't be alone in solving the LB equation, because Micah Parsons is expected to take reps as an off-ball player as well, much akin to the versatility he displayed in his rookie season, and you can also expect Malik Jefferson to get a heavy dose of work — while Mikel Jones, signed last week to the practice squad, continues to ramp up for duty and Markquese Bell already operating in a safety/LB hybrid role.
However it gets figured out, the fact is the Cowboys will have to sort through it all prior to landing in Los Angeles, only one week after the defense was dismantled to the tune of 42 points; that being the most ever allowed by a Dan Quinn defense in his NFL career.
Prior to that matchup, the Cowboys' defense was allowing a league-low 10.3 points per game, but that number has now increased to just under 17 points per game in one outing, pushing them down six spots to seventh-best in that category.
A bounceback is needed in a major way for Clark and his compatriots.
"The only way to get the bad taste out of our mouths is to go out there and kick somebody else's ass," he said. "That's the bottom line."