IRVING, Texas – If you caught training camp practice in Oxnard over the last month, you might've seen a different linebacker combination on a given day.
One reason is injuries: Anthony Hitchens is recovering from a sprained foot and Rolando McClain has yet to practice following offseason knee surgery. And extra reps also have been available at times as the Cowboys eased Sean Lee back into a full practice workload in his return from 2014 ACL surgery.
The other reason for the linebacker shuffle is versatility: The more you can do in Rod Marinelli's defense, the better chance you have of earning a roster spot and playing time.
Multiple players – rookie Damien Wilson, Kyle Wilber, Andrew Gachkar, Jasper Brinkley and Keith Smith, to name a few – all have gotten looks at multiple linebacker positions.
"Well, I think that's the nature of linebacker positions," head coach Jason Garrett said. "Particularly in this scheme, because guys play different spots and if somebody gets hurt over the course of the year, you have to be able to plug guys in and you're trying to find your best three. And then if something happens to one of them, who's the best guy and what's the best combination for us. You're always making that assessment in base (defense) with three linebackers, then you're making it in nickel with two linebackers, so you're always kind of working them at different spots.
"I think mixing and matching them and giving them opportunities to pay different spots is just part of what you do."
The three starting spots don't appear set yet. Lee is the expected starter on the weak side (Will), but a player must fill in at middle (Mike) while McClain serves a four-game NFL suspension. The strong side (Sam) spot is also open. Hitchens got time at both last year, as did Gachkar and Wilber in this year's camp.
Gachkar, who started eight games since 2013 for San Diego, had four tackles and a special teams tackle in last Sunday's preseason game against the 49ers. He has recently taken reps at Mike with McClain and Hitchens out.
"He's a guy who has been very good on special teams throughout his career and also a very versatile guy who felt we could play the Sam, the Mike and the Will in our defense," Garrett said. "(Assistant head coach/special teams coordinator) Rich (Bisaccia) was with him in San Diego, endorsed him as guy and as a player. We're excited to have him."
Wilson, the Cowboys' fourth-round pick, also had four tackles last Sunday. He says he asks veterans such as Lee and Hitchens "like a thousand questions a day" as he adapts to the scheme.
Wilson primarily played Mike in college in both base and nickel packages. But a little like Hitchens, last year's fourth-rounder, Wilson has shown a combination of range and physical play that translates to any linebacker position.
"I'll play wherever they put me," he said. "It's all essentially the same thing: see the ball, go get the ball, make a play."