FRISCO, Texas — When it comes to elite reliability on a football team, you typically don't think of a second-year fifth-round pick. You go with the seasoned veteran with proven experience and a contract that rivals some of the highest-paid in the league. You go with the big name, high draft pick that immediately met expectations upon his arrival.
Sure, the Cowboys have those pieces. Zack Martin, Tyler Smith, Trevon Diggs, CeeDee Lamb. The list could go on, but one name you would be remiss to exclude would easily be DaRon Bland.
In just 23 career games, Bland has separated himself as one of the young stars on a deep Cowboys roster with a lot of young talent. Game-changing interceptions, impact deflections and big tackles in the run game have all become what we've gotten used to seeing out of the 6-foot, 197-pound standout.
In 2022, it was Bland filling in at nickel for an injured Jourdan Lewis in the final ten games of the season and leading the team in interceptions by the end of it. This season, Bland has had to fill into a new role as a boundary corner following Trevon Diggs' season-ending ACL injury and has continued to find success despite the new challenge.
What we've come to know is that Bland can be relied upon when called upon, but what Cowboys fans maybe didn't know is that his rookie season wasn't the first time he's had to step into a big role on short notice.
Ahead of his fourth game in his only season at Fresno State in 2021, Bland was forced to step into a similarly big position on the road against 13th-ranked UCLA early in the game. What he did with that opportunity is what we've gotten used to seeing from in the NFL and what set the course for what his football career would look like.
His tight coverage and a forced fumble late in the third quarter helped Fresno State pull off one of the biggest upsets in its program history. From there on, Bland's legend only grew.
"Before I came to Dallas, I was at Fresno State and I wasn't starting yet," Bland said. "We were at UCLA. I had to come up and got more playing time throughout the game. I had to step up and make those plays. After that, I started the rest of the season."
That moment in his college career laid the foundation for him to become a fifth-round pick a few months later and an immediate impact player for the Cowboys defense upon his arrival in Dallas. For him though, the work is only just beginning.
"Definitely there are things to work on," he said. "I'm never going to feel like I'm a complete player. I'm always asking myself how to be better. In football, there's never something that you'll have every time."
Bland's mentality has been praised by head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn for how nothing gets to him. During high moments, he's never too high. During low moments, he's never too low.
"That's just how I grew up," he said. "My parents and my family just always made sure, whenever the opportunity comes, just be ready. Nobody in my family ever let me be complacent or be still. I'm always trying to be better."
Growing up playing football, with a supportive family in his ear never letting him grow too comfortable on the field, Bland played a variety of positions including wide receiver which he says helped pave the way for him to be a ballhawk defensive back.
"Every time the ball is in the air, I try to be like a receiver and go get it," he said. "I started playing receiver in the seventh grade, all while playing running back, corner, and quarterback a little bit. I played receiver up until my senior year [of high school]."
Those traits gained at different positions in his early days has created a talented and knowledgeable cornerback that can excel anywhere in the secondary. Even despite the differences between playing nickel and playing on the perimeter in his first two seasons, Bland has had a seamless transition with that previous experience in hand and with the help of Trevon Diggs and Stephon Gilmore.
"I always talk to Trevon," he said. "He's been talking about honing in on the technique. Gilly is always saying one play at a time. That's always our mindset going into games."
Bland has continued to stack solid performances on the field and is in line to be one of the top cornerbacks in the NFC at the year's end. For him, it would be one of his goals to be recognized amongst that group all while seeking out the ultimate prize.
"One of my biggest goals is just stacking off of last year," Bland said. "Five picks and trying to get a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl."