IRVING, Texas – It's been a long wait for Chris Whaley, but his rookie season is finally underway.
Yes, technically speaking, the Madisonville, Texas, native has been in the NFL and on the Cowboys' roster for more than a year now. But thanks to an untimely ACL injury during his senior season at Texas, Whaley has played just as many snaps as the rest of the rookie class that reported to Valley Ranch last weekend.
"I feel like a rookie," Whaley said on Saturday. "I didn't play any all last year, so I know I have to prove myself and show what I can do."
It's been a long road for Whaley since he tore his ACL in the Longhorns' overtime win against West Virginia on Nov. 9, 2013. This time last year, he had just signed in Dallas as a priority free agent after his injury forced him off of draft boards.
"It was a few teams interested, but the Cowboys had the most interest," Whaley said. "I came in for a visit with the Cowboys -- talked the most with them, Leon Lett at the Combine. They showed the most interest, so my agent sat down and talked and this was the best fit."
Whaley took what was essentially a redshirt year in Dallas, as the Cowboys knew from the get-go that he wouldn't be available to play in 2014. Instead, they focused on inserting the 6-foot-3, 269-pound defensive tackle into their strength and conditioning program and getting him healthy.
"It was real tough, but it was also a bittersweet deal – just being able to watch and see how things go, see how fast it is," he said. "Like I said, being able to watch and get a hang of things, and being part of an NFL program – getting into the lifting, getting into the running and getting this knee back healthy."
He might not have had the chance to acclimate himself to NFL games, but the redshirt season gave Whaley a chance to develop relationships with the Cowboys' coaches. His year of experience with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was evident at rookie camp, as the legendary defensive line coach had high expectations for his second-year talent.
"With Coach Marinelli, everything is hard. He wants to push you to be great," Whaley said. "Just sitting in the room with him and how he coaches those guys, I learned that you've got to come out and go hard every day with Marinelli. He demands perfection."
If Marinelli can pull some production out of Whaley, it could be huge for the Cowboys' revamped pass rush. Whaley played multiple positions in college, but Marinelli is using him exclusively as the all-important three-technique in his defense. The three-technique is famous for generating a large amount of the pressure in this scheme, and the Cowboys could certainly use it.
"That's where I feel more comfortable, and that's what Marinelli always talks about – the under-tackle position. That's the bread-winner right there," Whaley said. "He feels confident about me playing that position, and that's all I've played, so I've got to come out and show it."
It's not exactly normal for an NFL team to take a chance on a player it won't be able to use right away – especially not for more than a year. That fact isn't lost on Whaley, who will have the next few months to prove to the Cowboys that their gesture wasn't fruitless.
"Me and my brother always talk about how they see something in me, they took the time out to give me a chance to sit out a year and get my knee right," he said. "I'm very thankful for this opportunity, and I can't let them down. I've got to come out and I've got to push and show them that they didn't waste their time."