OXNARD, Calif. – Since last year the game has slowed down for Lucky Whitehead.
And, if it's possible, he has sped up.
Whitehead welcomed back football Saturday night against the Rams with an electric 101-yard touchdown return on the preseason-opening kickoff. It was his first return touchdown in preseason or regular season since joining the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2015 – and an indication that his offseason work is paying off.
Following his rookie season as a backup receiver and the primary punt and kickoff returner, Whitehead was told by the coaching staff he needed improve his lower-body strength – the type of offseason training he admits "was never my thing."
Whitehead agreed. He said the 16-game NFL grind wore on his legs. He also knew he'd need a stronger lower body to support a few extra pounds he added to his frame in the offseason.
"My speed's kind of been a natural for me," he said, "but once I got a good leg day I didn't like the next day. Very sore. But I learned to get used to it, especially more this year. It's the most I've ever worked on my legs. I'm a lot stronger now in my lower body than I've ever been."
Whitehead hopes his work with the strength and conditioning staff will also help him break more leg and ankle tackles in his second season. That wasn't necessary on the opening kickoff Saturday: with a couple of key blocks by his Cowboys teammates, all he had to do was elude Rams running back Chase Reynolds and then outrun kicker Greg Zuerlein for the end zone.
The game moved slower than his NFL debut last August against the Chargers, when "everything was happening really quick," he said.
As the Cowboys enter their final training camp week in Oxnard, Whitehead is also focused on becoming a complete receiver after catching six passes for 16 yards in a reserve role last year. He sits next to Cole Beasley in meetings, studying how he plays the slot.
"I think he's understanding more and more what we're asking him to do," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "He made a good catch on the post route the other day in the game. But, like all young players, he just needs to keep doing it. So he's made strides, but he's got to get better as a route runner. But I can say that about any receiver on our team. He certainly goes about it the right way."
As Whitehead got more comfortable in the system last year, the Cowboys began to find new ways to get him the ball in space. He had 10 carries for 107 yards as a rookie.
"That's my job – when I get the ball, to try to make a play, be a playmaker. I want to try to change the game any way I can," he said. "It all came off of trust, just constant reps and showing them that I could be a playmaker."