At the start of this calendar year, Ben DiNucci found himself in Frisco, Texas getting ready to start the last game of his college career.
Not even he could've expected that just 10 months later, he's in Frisco, Texas – getting himself ready for what could be his first NFL start.
Whether or not DiNucci actually starts for the Cowboys Sunday night in Philadelphia, it's been quite a journey.
Last January, DiNucci was wrapping up an impressive two-year career at James Madison University and mentally preparing to play in the FCS Championship against North Dakota State at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
This week, he's at the Star in Frisco, preparing for the possibility of the first start at quarterback of his NFL career, depending on the health of Andy Dalton, who had a serious concussion last Sunday in Washington.
DiNucci was never supposed to throw a pass for the Cowboys in 2020. If he did, it meant more than one thing had gone drastically wrong. That's exactly where things stand. With Dak Prescott out for the season with an ankle injury, DiNucci saw a few snaps of action in the Monday Night Football loss to the Arizona Cardinals. And with Dalton leaving last Sunday's game, DiNucci saw extensive game action.
Dalton has officially entered concussion protocol this week, and in the event that he is not cleared before Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles, DiNucci will be the Cowboys' only option at quarterback. And while the circumstances leading to his playing time have been disastrous, DiNucci's place on the roster all goes back to last January in Frisco.
He had hopped in the elevator up to his hotel room before the FCS Championship, and someone came in behind him just before the doors closed. It was Mike McCarthy, who had recently been hired as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. McCarthy's brother was DiNucci's eighth grade basketball coach back at Pittsburgh, so DiNucci introduced himself and explained the family connection.
"He was very familiar with our [James Madison] team," DiNucci remembered. "I was kind of surprised that he knew who I was."
The FCS quarterback and NFL coach had about a five-minute conversation together, discussing the various regional ties the two men share. "Ben and I are from the same area back here in Pittsburgh," McCarthy would say months later. "So I'm very aware of everything he's done [in high school and college football]."
If DiNucci was flattered that the Dallas Cowboys head coach knew who he was in January, then he must have been ecstatic when the Cowboys used their seventh round draft pick to acquire him in April to play under McCarthy.
DiNucci originally played for the University of Pittsburgh but made the difficult decision to transfer to James Madison where increased opportunity led to some of the most efficient quarterback play in the nation. In 2019, he threw for 3,341 yards, 29 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He also led the nation with a completion percentage of 70.6.
In the quarter and a half that he played against Washington last Sunday he completed just 2 of 3 passes for 39 yards, and he was sacked three times. But one of those completions was a 20-yard strike to Amari Cooper that came just when it seemed DiNucci was too rattled to handle the big stage.
Cowboys fans will perhaps be intrigued to learn of the 569 yards and seven touchdowns DiNucci rushed for last season at James Madison. The Cowboys built their offense around Dak Prescott's efficient arm and resourceful legs. Unlike Dalton, DiNucci brings a similar mindset to the position.
"In today's day and age, quarterbacks need to be able to be athletic and extend plays when the pocket breaks down or guys aren't open," DiNucci said after he was drafted in April. "Just being able to watch [Prescott] over these last few years as a spectator--and him being a fourth-round pick with the success he's had--being able to come in and learn under a guy like that is awesome."
McCarthy, on the other hand, went a bit further back in comparing DiNucci, claiming that his accuracy reminded him of a young Marc Bulger, who was a two-time Pro Bowler with the St. Louis Rams in the mid-2000's. "He is a young man who has played the position his whole life," McCarthy said.
It might have looked like DiNucci was being feasted upon by a defensive line that had already secured insurmountable momentum, but the rookie sounded anything but intimidated after the game.
"Obviously, coming from James Madison, you don't see guys like (Washington defensive end) Chase Young coming at you every day," DiNucci said. "But the bottom line is that football is football. It's the same game I've been playing since I was in the seventh grade, so I couldn't do anything else except go out there with a smile and got in the huddle and said, 'Let's go. Let's have some fun. We got nothing to lose and it's raining and there's no one in the stands, so let's create our own energy here and try to find some positives from this thing and go put points on the board.'"
With a week of practice as the presumed starter, the Cowboys will be able to prepare DiNucci for how to develop four quarters of a game plan. His offensive cooridnator, Kellen Moore, was in a similar situation in 2015, having to step up and start for an injured Tony Romo in the middle of the season. "I think the biggest thing is the communication and presence," Moore said on Monday. "You're going into the huddle with guys you haven't had a lot of practice with. You've got to make sure all 11 guys are on the same page. Call that play confidently. People will feel that and respond well."
Perhaps most importantly for DiNucci's confidence, he'll be able enter a game with a 0-0 score instead of facing a huge deficit.
"I think if you told me a year ago this is where I'd be I'd say 'no way' and you'd have to pinch me," he said Sunday night. "But here we are. This team drafted me for a reason, and Coach McCarthy brought me here for a reason."