Hitchens Could Be Defense's Middle Man During R. McClain's Suspension

OXNARD, Calif. – A popular social media quip this offseason was the Cowboys' 90-man roster included approximately 85 linebackers.

Bitten by so many injuries in 2014, starting with Sean Lee's ACL injury in the very first OTA workout, the front office wisely restocked the position with a combination of veterans and draft picks. Still, that depth is being tested early in training camp.

Veteran Keith Rivers retired just before the team got to Oxnard. Rookie Mark Nzeocha is on the Active/Non-Football Injury list while he recovers from a knee injury suffered in college. Two back-of-the-roster 'backers (Justin Jackson, Justin Anderson) have been waived/injured in the last week.

And, most notably: Lee, the weak side 'Will' starter, is healthy but easing back into practice; and Rolando McClain, the middle 'Mike' starter, is on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform list following his May knee scope.

It helps to have Anthony Hitchens around.

Last year's fourth-round pick was a valuable jack-of-all-trades as a rookie, starting 11 games at 'Will' (seven), 'Mike' (three) and the strong-side 'Sam' position (one). And with McClain still rehabbing, Hitchens is taking first-team practice reps at 'Mike.'

He could wind up starting the regular season there while McClain serves a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

"You always need a guy who can play two or three spots – you love it," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "Right now he's got to play some 'Mike' for us until we get the big guy back, too.

"But he can play 'Mike,' he's played the 'Will' and he's played the 'Sam.' And you hate doing that to a guy, but it's critical to our team to have that kind of depth."

Hitchens ranked third on defense last year with 100 team-credited tackles. Not bad for a rookie viewed by many draft observers as a reach in the fourth round.

The Cowboys saw a productive two-year starter in the Big Ten, a big hitter with speed and a feel for the game.

"That kid's toughness, really something. Mental toughness," Marinelli said. "His instincts . . . for a rookie, that's what we liked about him when we watched his college (film) – his instincts, his awareness, movement.

"And tougher than nails. He came from a tough program, physical, smart."

When Lee injured his knee last May, Hitchens made headlines when he acknowledged, just a month after being drafted, that he wasn't ready to replace the veteran leader.

But he added he eventually would be. The Cowboys' July trade for McClain helped fortify the middle, and Hitchens pitched in where needed.

This year, having played all three positions, he's clearly more comfortable in Marinelli's scheme.

"I just think when it was my opportunity I studied my playbook, lined up the right way and just tried to go out there and make the most plays that I can for my team," Hitchens said. "I just think it starts in the classroom and learning all three positions from Day One."

The Cowboys will have to make a decision on a starter at 'Mike' until McClain is eligible to return after the Oct. 4 trip to New Orleans. It could be Hitchens, or if they feel veteran Jasper Brinkley can fill in capably there, perhaps Hitchens moves to the strong side opposite Lee.

No matter where he lines up, Hitchens figures to get plenty of work in his second season.

Right now, he's focused on the middle.

"Just being smart, helping everybody else get lined up," Hitchens said. "(Being) a hard worker, just being a leader – not so much as vocal but leading by example."

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