FRISCO, Texas – When the Cowboys drafted Chidobe Awuzie in the second round last April, they probably figured he would have a start under his belt before Week 13 of the season.
Injuries that began in training camp have plagued him for most of the year but with the Cowboys down to just five games left in the year and fighting to stay alive in the playoff picture, the rookie from Colorado appears to be getting close to his first start.
The Cowboys have yet to announce any official lineup changes and likely won't until a couple of hours before kickoff Thursday night, but head coach Jason Garrett said there would definitely be competition for spots in the secondary with the hint of possible changes. One of the moves appears to be with Awuzie, who has played both corner and safety this year, but has now moved back to cornerback and could start this week against the Redskins.
More than anything, Awuzie said he's just excited to be back on the field consistently. A hamstring injury that began early in camp, sidelined him until the start of the regular season. Awuzie then went down in Week 2 vs. the Broncos, forcing him out for two games. He came back for the Packers game but couldn't finish the game before re-injuring the hamstring. This time, he missed four more games before returning to action against the Eagles. He's played two straight games without a setback, and in that span, also made what appeared to be a permanent move to safety.
But Awuzie said the position changes back and forth have helped him understand the entire secondary.
"When I switched to safety I was definitely preparing like a safety," he said. "I started learning a lot of different people's positions and it kind of gave me a broader perspective of our defense. That's all I was doing was studying and cheering these guys on. But now I'm back."
Garrett said the position flex Awuzie has is not only one of the things they liked coming out of college, but something that can get him on the field, and keep him there.
"He's gotten a lot of work at both spots. Like we talked about earlier, when you have some different combinations that are available to you because of health, you have to have some versatility back there," Garrett said. "He's someone who has the physical traits to play a couple different spots. We have to be careful not giving him too much because he's a young player who's missed some time. But he certainly can handle it, he's working very hard to get better — whatever we ask him to do."
And it's that attitude, despite the injury issues, that have impressed Garrett and the coaching staff the most. While it might be easy to get frustrated and want to rush the process, Awuzie has been mature about his rehab, but yet eager to get on the field and contribute.
"I think his approach has been excellent, it's been unfortunate that he's been out," Garrett said. "For all players you need to practice — particularly for young players. But I do think the work that he's gotten outside of practice has been good. I think he's engaged, I think he's learning. But you get better by practicing and you get better by playing. He's been healthy the last couple weeks, he's gotten some work. I think he's getting better."
How much better? That's something the Cowboys are likely about to find out.