IRVING, Texas – Anthony Hitchens isn't prepared to be the next man up at middle linebacker yet, and he'll be the first to admit it.
The fourth-round pick was brought in to back up Sean Lee, and after the star middle linebacker left the first practice of Organized Team Activities with a knee injury, it was Hitchens who got time at the spot.
Hitchens may need to get comfortable there, given that Lee's ACL injury will likely keep him out for the year. But the rookie, who'd never played middle linebacker, still has a long way to go.
Asked whether he's prepared if he's the guy called upon at middle linebacker, Hitchens responded candidly.
"Honestly, right now, no," Hitchens said. "But I will get there. It's going to take time. I've still got to get everything down. If we had a game tomorrow, no, but it's a good thing we don't. I have time to get better."
Hitchens wasn't in a good position to see Lee go down, so he couldn't tell the severity of the injury. But this is the reason the linebacker's on the team, despite his lack of experience at that particular spot on defense.
He said he only started learning middle linebacker when he arrived in Dallas, but most of the Cowboys' linebackers are taught to be versatile.
"This defense is a lot of rotating and a lot of pulling on strings, so everyone plays every position almost," Hitchens said. "So, you know, just got to get down the different footwork and the calls. I'm taking on guards more than tackles now, so it's just a little different."
The Lee injury was deflating for everyone on the field, including Hitchens, who was thrust into action. Hitchens called Lee the defense's best player and the guy everyone looks up to.
Even off the field, Lee's been instrumental in Hitchens' development.
"If I'm not in and he's not in, I'm right next to him," Hitchens said. "I see him walking around before meetings start, I'm always asking questions with him. Smart guy, he knows a lot. Obviously, you can tell on the field, but yeah, he's a very smart guy."
The trick for Hitchens now is to understand his responsibilities and get an idea how offenses can and will attack the defense. He also needs to learn how to line up, make the checks and ensure the defensive players are all on the same page. [embedded_ad]
That can be a lot to learn for any middle linebacker, let alone one who's not familiar with the position.
"There's a mental and intellectual challenge that comes with certain positions," said head coach Jason Garrett. "Quarterback would be one of them. Center would be one of them. Mike linebacker would be one of them. But we feel good about the linebacker options that we have. We drafted Hitchens for a reason, and we feel like he's a good football player and has some position flex. We'll see how he responds to the opportunity he gets."
Garrett said he thought Hitchens did well at the rookie minicamp and he's excited to work with him, but after jumping in with the starters, Hitchens knows there's a lot more adjusting to do.
"It was a different speed," Hitchens said. "Obviously, guys are moving a lot faster and stuff like that. But it was a good opportunity to see where I need to be at, and I'm not there yet. It was a big eye-opener, like, 'OK, you're not where you need to be and there's still room to improve.'"