SAN DIEGO– For one night, the training camp battles shift from Oxnard to San Diego.
Two weeks into camp, several Cowboys will try to separate themselves with strong performances – not against each other, but finally against an opponent: the San Diego Chargers in Thursday night's preseason opener.
The DallasCowboys.com staff highlights eight players worth watching closely at Qualcomm Stadium:
Randy Gregory: Gregory's one-on-one pass rush battles with Tyron Smith – or any Cowboys offensive lineman, for that matter – have been must-see in training camp. It's clear why the Cowboys were downright giddy to scoop him up in the second round: his quickness off the snap can be electric at times, and he'll continue to get better with experience. Gregory clearly has added weight since draft weekend, which is necessary to become an every-down player. It'll be interesting to see what kind of impact he can make rushing against a possible combination of San Diego's first- and second-teamers.
Lucky Whitehead:I think I speak for Cowboys fans everywhere here. They've heard how dynamic Whitehead can be in the return game, but it's just hard to gauge much until he gets into an actual live game situation. As much potential as Whitehead has returning kicks and punts, he has made his share of plays at receiver in practice, too. Replacing Dez Bryant (hamstring) with the first team the last few days, he seems to have a good feel for routes, and of course, he's dangerous if the quarterback can get him the ball in space. There's sort of a cool, quiet confidence about Whitehead. He's definitely one to watch.
Devin Street: The one time we've seen Street make a really nice play in training camp, it resulted in him rolling his ankle and missing several days of practice. Dez Bryant isn't going to play against the Chargers, and I'm guessing Jason Witten, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley will see limited action, as well. That leaves Street as one of the most experienced of these young receivers. He's been practicing the last few days, so hopefully he's feeling fresh and can go for five or six receptions. It'd be nice to see what kind of progress he's making in Year 2.
Byron Jones: I don't know if there's a guy I'm more excited to watch under the lights this preseason. The coaching staff has already told me that Jones is going to play a lot on Thursday night. Will it be mostly at corner – or will he spend time at safety, nickel or dime? Hopefully all of the above. Given his athleticism and intelligence, I have high expectations. I think Byron makes a big impact in his first outing with the Cowboys.
Gus Johnson: We don't have a choice, right? Because it's unlikely the top three backs will play much, if at all, Johnson is expected to get the bulk of the carries Thursday night, along with some help from Lache Seastrunk. So far, Johnson looks like a strong, relatively-quick back but things tend to change a bit when the lights come on. Call it a preseason game if you'd like (because it most certainly is), but the stage will be much bigger than what Johnson was used to at Stephen F. Austin. I think it'll be hard for him to stick around and make the team, but sometimes these guys just do enough where it's impossible to cut them. Phillip Tanner played his on to the team and Lance Dunbar did the same. If anything, Johnson probably won't say he didn't get any opportunities because they'll be coming in this game.
Greg Hardy: Another no-brainer here, and this assuming he will play. I just can't imagine how a guy who missed 15 games last year, and will probably miss the first four this year, will be held out for this first game. Personally, I'd play him the entire first half if he can handle it. Against the Cowboys' O-line in practice, Hardy hasn't made a ton of plays, but the effort and power is there. I'm interested to see how he performs under the lights as well. We talk about the rookies getting wide-eyed, but I would imagine the juices will be flowing rather strong for Hardy, too.
Dustin Vaughan - This game might not mean anything to a lot of people but it might mean the career of Dustin Vaughan. This will be the start of a stretch of games this summer that could determine his future fate with the Dallas Cowboys. This front office and coaching staff have an idea in what they have in Vaughan but deep down in their guts - they really are not sure. For Vaughan to once again hold a roster spot he is going to have to prove to them that he truly belongs and that starts against the Chargers.
Damien Wilson - No matter who you visit with about this defense - the name that seems to be brought up the most of the young players is Damien Wilson. There are times where I feel like I am over selling him in my stories or our shows but it's hard not to because I believe there is something special. As good as Anthony Hitchens was as a rookie my feeling is that Wilson could be just as good and that is saying a great deal.