IRVING, Texas – How's this for a vote of confidence? By taking him 80th overall in the third round of last weekend's NFL draft, the Dallas Cowboys signaled their intention that J.J. Wilcox will become one of their starting safeties – potentially as soon as this fall.
Those are lofty expectations to place on any rookie, but how about one like Wilcox, who has manned his current position for less than a year? That's right. This time last year, the Georgia Southern All-American was coming off the last of his three seasons with the Eagles' offense, where he rushed for 481 yards and seven scores in team's triple-option offense.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett insisted that he and his staff weren't looking for players fresh off position changes during the buildup to the draft – Wilcox simply stood out that much.
"We felt like with Wilcox that he really had grown so much over the course of his one-year playing safety, and that his physical potential will allow him to grow more and more," Garrett said. "We like so much about how he plays, the demeanor and the physical-ness that he plays with."
The Cowboys certainly chose the right player to put such confidence in, judging by Wilcox's self-assured manner upon getting the news. It's easy to see why, as his one year in the secondary landed him as an All-American, Senior Bowl invitee and eventually Georgia Southern's highest-ever draft pick. "Coming in as a one-year starter at safety, it was the same question my coaches asked me in college: 'Will you be able to come up here and be a leader in the secondary, or will you be stuck on offense,'" Wilcox said. "It's a chip on my shoulder. It's a challenge for me, and I'm going to hit it full-speed running, full-throttle running."
He'll have to do just that if he's going to have any early impact on the depth chart. Wilcox brings the safety pool on the Cowboys' roster up to a whopping six, after the free agency addition of veteran Will Allen, the re-signing of Danny McCray and the return from injury of both Matt Johnson and Barry Church. Micah Pellerin, who spent part of last season on the team's practice squad, is also in the mix.
Wilcox said he'll use the same motivation he used to reach the NFL in order to crack the first string.
"I've always got room to improve, but I've always said that if I can just get in and play for any team, that I can – a lot of household names in the NFL are from smaller schools," he said. "With that being said, if I just come in with a chip on my shoulder and show these guys that 'Hey, even though I'm from a smaller school I came here to be a starter and be a great role model and a great team player for the Dallas Cowboys."
The lack of experience at safety is something Wilcox can be sure to hear about all the way through training camp. The 5-11, 214-pound prospect said his work on the opposite side of the ball should come as a positive when he starts competing with his fellow defensive backs.
"It doesn't make you limited. When you come in, a team can use you anywhere to be a good accent and a good team player. I think it helps out a lot with ball skills, footwork, hips and the technique that you need to be a good safety," Wilcox said. "Playing offense three years definitely helped me out this year back at safety. Hopefully it will transfer over to the NFL and I can become one of the best safeties in the NFL."
However good the Cowboys might feel about Wilcox, it's safe to say his biggest vote of confidence is from himself.