FRISCO, Texas – Mike McCarthy has coached in the NFL since 1993, including 15 years as a head coach. He can't think of a stronger linebacker group on paper than the Cowboys' current group.
"I've never had comfort like we have right now," the Cowboys' head coach said. "I'm not trying to disrespect anybody, but to have that depth and that veteran experience from top to bottom and then to have the rookie class joining, it's an outstanding group of linebackers."
It's a great situation for McCarthy and his staff. From a playing time standpoint, it's an uphill climb for Jabril Cox – a three-time FCS national champion at North Dakota State and one-year starter at SEC powerhouse LSU – who's battling for reps behind veterans Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Keanu Neal as well as 12th-overall draft pick Micah Parsons.
But Cox, a fourth-round draft pick in April, sees the depth as a chance to learn.
"We have a great veteran group ahead of me," he said. "Leighton, J, Micah, Keanu – those guys, they've helped out tremendously, especially Luke (Gifford). So just learning from them. I know early on it's a learning curve, but once I get my opportunity I try to make the most of it."
As training camp wears on, Cox appears to be doing just that.
He has led or tied for the most tackles in the last two preseason games: seven (two for loss) against Arizona and four (one for loss) against Houston. He also added a special teams tackle in the Cardinals game, an important step for his expected role as a backup linebacker and core special teams contributor as a rookie.
"I think he's kind of on a normal plane for a young guy. He picks it up really clean," McCarthy said. "I think his introduction to pro football was a little bumpy at the Hall of Fame Game when he first got in there, and I thought he responded very well. I think he's definitely done that the last two weeks.
"He had a really good play out in space (last Saturday against the Texans) and definitely you could see his range and his instincts, his awareness. I think he's doing a nice job. He obviously has to do more on special teams because that's always where the young guys make their first impact."
Cox looks forward to that role. He got his first college playing time on special teams at North Dakota State and played on the punt team at LSU.
At linebacker, Cox says he's focusing on understanding the responsibilities of the entire defense, not just his own. Regarded as an excellent coverage linebacker in college, he's also working to improve his tackling in preseason.
Sunday's preseason finale against Jacksonville should provide another chance for significant snaps – and to make an impression on the coaching staff.
"Depending on if I'm getting one snap or 10 snaps, I'm trying to make the most of those opportunities," he said.