FRISCO, Texas – The 2020 Cowboys season was anything but normal, especially for then-rookie quarterback Ben DiNucci.
Last year's seventh-round draft pick played a total of 94 snaps in three games after Dak Prescott's ankle injury that October, including a "surreal" first career start in a 23-9 road loss to the Eagles on Nov. 1.
There are positives DiNucci takes from those moments. But make no mistake, he has enjoyed his first normal NFL offseason, featuring actual in-person workouts and practices this spring, with his first career preseason action to follow this August.
It's a more realistic chance to prove himself at football's most challenging position.
"Yeah, I think last year was weird, and being a rookie I think that was just kind of all that we knew," DiNucci said during last week's minicamp at The Star. "So this is really nice just getting in here and getting some reps, get comfortable going into camp and just kind of getting my feet on the ground. It's a lot better when you've got guys around to bounce things off each other. It's nice to be in the building and see faces and get out and practice a little bit."
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Cowboys into an entirely virtual offseason program last year, meaning DiNucci and the 2020 rookie class didn't take the field until an abbreviated training camp in mid-August.
Snaps were scarce behind Prescott and former Cowboys backup Andy Dalton. Then preseason games were canceled.
Despite all that, DiNucci – a former star at FCS program James Madison – found himself in the starting lineup by Week 8 when Dalton suffered a concussion the game before against Washington.
The 23-year-old got his first first-team snaps the week of the Eagles game, and his lack of experience showed in primetime against a tough Philly defense. He completed only 21 of 40 passes for 180 yards (4.5 per completion) with no touchdowns, no interceptions and four sacks taken.
The following week, Garrett Gilbert took over as the fill-in starter until Dalton returned after the bye week and played out the rest of the season.
"It was a surreal moment for me," DiNucci reflected. "That's something I'll be able to say for the rest of my life – 'Hey, I started a game for the Dallas Cowboys my rookie year.'
"But I think just some positives for me, as you watched the game progress, I felt like I got a little more comfortable every quarter. Just some things, when the checkdown is there, take the checkdown, a positive play is a good play, no negative plays, just throwing the ball out of bounds when guys aren't open. Just things that come with playing. And that's all stuff that I'll be able to work out in the preseason.
"It'll be nice to have preseason this year just to kind of be able to get back in the flow of games, play in games and get out there and show what I can do."
DiNucci said the speed of the NFL game – not only post-snap but pre-snap, making the right adjustments at the line of scrimmage – was his biggest challenge coming from James Madison.
Only four OTA and minicamp practices were open to the media in May and June, but DiNucci appeared to settle in as the offseason program progressed. In the final minicamp session, he led the backup offense down the field and delivered a touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Brandon Smith in a two-minute situational drill.
Dalton is now in Chicago, but with Prescott back healthy from 2020 ankle surgery, DiNucci is still trying make the most of limited backup snaps split between himself, Gilbert and Cooper Rush. The Cowboys have acknowledged they're on the lookout for more competition at the backup spots behind Prescott, but McCarthy recently praised the current group.
"Right now I'm very comfortable with all four of our guys," he said in late May. "They've put a tremendous amount of work in this offseason. Those guys know the offense inside and out and that's what you're looking for. Love the classroom work.
"It's good to get on the field. Ben DiNucci's taken a big step. This is exactly what he needs."
DiNucci agrees – and he can't wait for his first chance to play in preseason.
"I think we had a really good rookie class last year, really talented, so a lot of us are ready to show what we can do," he said. "Obviously I played in two games last year, but I feel like that wasn't me out there.
"I get a chance to get in the huddle, play confident, play comfortable and just let it all hang out. We realize that spots are on the line, so it'll be fun, it'll be competitive, but that's all you can ask for."