SAN DIEGO – DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar didn't see a snap of action against San Diego, so it was already established the preseason opener would feature the backup running backs.
When undrafted rookie Ben Malena went down with a quad strain five minutes into the third quarter, it became even more apparent –Thursday night's preseason debut would be all about Joseph Randle and Ryan Williams.
It was fitting, since the two are currently battling it out for the Cowboys' No. 3 running back spot, but it was a bit surprising to see them carry the bulk of the Dallas rushing effort. Randle was the de-facto starter, as Murray and Dunbar were healthy scratches before kickoff.
With that opportunity, he took 13 of the team's 23 carries for 50 yards on the night.
"It was good to see Joseph get those opportunities. He's done an excellent job since the start of training camp," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "He's grown a lot since he's been with us. I thought he was decisive running the football – putting his foot in the ground and getting up the field. It looked like he saw the field well."
Roughly half of that production came on the game's opening drive when, running behind the starting offensive line for the only time, Randle carried seven times for 24 yards.
The Cowboys take on the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.
"I'm just more comfortable with the playbook and everything – the game has slowed down for me," Randle said. "I thought I had a lot of good holes to run through, and I tried to take the best advantage of them."
Williams, the former second-round pick by Arizona, entered toward the tail end of the second quarter and toted the ball five yards on his first carry. He finished with 29 yards on just eight carries, but he put together a productive night through the air with a team-best five catches for 31 yards.
The third-year veteran was inactive in all 16 games for the Cardinals last season. Williams said the playing time was a positive, even with his miscues.
"I missed that one pass, and it pissed me off," Williams said. "Just getting the opportunity to play, regardless of what it looked like – I was out there fighting."
The fight is likely just beginning, as the Cowboys are bound to limit the playing time for the Pro Bowler Murray and the diminutive Dunbar. Randle and Williams will likely see plenty of action next weekend against Baltimore, and they may again get the bulk of the work in the preseason finale against Denver.
Both backs said they've got plenty more to work on as the preseason goes along.
"I think just more experience. I had two games where I started last year, and I've been working hard at practice," Randle said. "I just need to get in a little bit more condition."
Added Williams: "We had a lot of young guys and stuff out there, but I did my best and that's all I can do. I missed one block and I missed one pass, and that's all that's on my mind right now. I'll get better."