IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys don't want to find themselves in the same linebacker predicament they've dealt with before.
Injuries notoriously depleted the Cowboys' linebackers and most of the defense last year. As a result, outside linebackers had to bump inside and vice versa in an attempt to deal with the losses.
In large part to be prepared for a similar scenario, the Cowboys are now moving their young linebackers around and getting them to learn multiple positions before the pads come on. Anthony Hitchens, who was drafted to play middle linebacker, said he's also now learning the weak side, while DeVonte Holloman's learning to play both the middle and the strong side.
"I'll play wherever they tell me to," Holloman said. "I'm learning them both, and hopefully by the time the season starts, I'll know which one I'm playing and I'll major in one and minor in the other."
Holloman spent most of his rookie 2013 season as a strong side linebacker, but after multiple injuries to the starters, he ended up starting the final two games of the season at middle linebacker. He set career-highs in tackles (11) and sacks (2) in the finale at that spot, but he knows he could be anywhere this year.
"It helps that I tried to learn both last year," Holloman said. "It's kind of just refreshing myself and picking up the little things that'll help me out going forward."
The sixth-round pick went into his rookie year expecting to start his career only on special teams, but he said he did the best with what he was thrown into. Injuries provide opportunities, and Holloman took advantage of those chances.
"It was tough, especially because I'd never played linebacker until last year," Holloman said. "I was learning on the fly, and the more reps I got and more games I played, the better I played…It's a lot of different things going into it. I'm learning, but I'm getting the hang of it."
Holloman, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Justin Durant, Ernie Sims and Kyle Wilber all recorded starts last year at linebacker. Holloman, Durant and Sims were outside linebackers who had to start at middle linebacker at various points in the season as other players went down.
Sims is no longer a member of the Cowboys, but the current linebackers know they need to be ready for similar situations.
Hitchens is finding that out quickly. He was drafted to back up Lee and was immediately tossed into the middle during practice to see how he'd handle the spot after Lee went down.
"I'm just trying to learn the playbook and get a feel for stuff," Hitchens said. "I'm a lot better since day one, obviously. Now I've got to learn another position, weak side linebacker. It's coming along and I'm picking up everything pretty fast." [embedded_ad]
With Lee's injury, Hitchens said he has to study twice as hard every night. His belief is that the more positions he knows, the better player he becomes.
Hitchens said he already feels a lot more comfortable getting the calls down from the middle than he did when he was initially thrown in with the starters weeks ago. He also looks forward to when the pads finally come on, when he believes he'll really thrive.
"It's coming fast and they're not holding my hand, so I'm ready for the challenge," Hitchens said.
The starting lineup at linebacker is far from set and might be the biggest mystery of all after Lee's injury. What makes that position group unique is every spot's up for grabs, and many of the players have to be ready to jump in at different spots.
Holloman, who missed time last year with a neck injury and sat our part of this year's OTAs with a sore hamstring, is one of the many linebackers back out on the field now in search of one of those starting spots.
"I'm healthy. I feel a whole lot better," he said. "The key for me right now is to get in the playbook and learn the different positions that I played last year and be ready for everything."