SAN DIEGO – Typically, you might not see a rookie class flash as much in a full preseason as the Cowboys' youngsters did on Thursday night.
Dallas is 60 minutes into its preseason, just 25 percent of the way, and already their lauded rookies have made an impression. Take a look around the box score, where Byron Jones tied for the team lead in tackles, playing with a poise not expected of a rookie.
"I was actually pretty calm – surprisingly calm," Jones said. "I thought I would be nervous, but I was just calm and knew I deserved to be out there."
The same can probably be said for Jones' high-profile counterpart. Quiet for the early going of the 17-7 loss, Randy Gregory finished his first pro outing on the same field where he concluded his college career – and with two tackles and a sack for his efforts.
"It feels good to just go out there and play against somebody else, put pads on again," Gregory said. "Being out there on the field – I think the last time I played a game was actually on that field, in the bowl game. It was nice being out there again."
If the numbers don't show up in the stats, the impression was still undoubtedly made on the field. Lost in the shuffle of a turnover-laden first half, there was fourth-round pick Damien Wilson, stuffing Chargers running back Brandon Oliver for a three-yard loss on a crucial 3rd-and-1.
"It was good to see some younger players play a lot," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.
La'el Collins can attest to that. After a brief series by the starting trio of Ron Leary, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, Collins played most of the night in his Cowboys debut. He didn't log any stats, but the tape will reveal plenty – specifically, a brutal block to spring Gus Johnson into the end zone on the Cowboys' only touchdown of the night.
"Me and the tackle did a great job on the down lineman, and our technique is to shoot when they shoot," Collins said. "He came across the line of scrimmage on the shot, and it was just a great run by the back – he seen the hole and he busted right on in there."
Maybe the most impressive thing about the debut effort was that it didn't seem to follow into the locker room. To a man, none of the newcomers seemed overly worked up about their progress – which would no doubt make Garrett happy.
But even if the rookies themselves aren't excited, there are plenty of onlookers who will be.
Good Luck, Bad Luck
After four months of talk, Lucky Whitehead finally had a chance to show why he's perhaps the most-discussed rookie on this roster.
The results were mixed, as anyone who watched the game can attest.
Halfway through the game's second quarter, Whitehead displayed his noteworthy speed and elusiveness with a 19-yard punt return – only to ruin the showcase with a costly fumble.
"I've just got to get down. I was trying to get extra yards," he said. "I turned and the guy came from behind, and I kind of let the ball get away from me. I don't think it was really nerves, I was just trying to get extra yards."
It was one of two first half turnovers, and it negated a chance for the Cowboys to set up in good field position. Luckily for Lucky, though, it wasn't his final impression on the night.
After San Diego took a 14-7 lead with less than a minute until halftime, Whitehead fielded a short kickoff and raced up the left side of the field, tearing off 38 yards and getting the Cowboys to their own 41-yard line. It wouldn't result in any points, but it was an encouraging response from the rookie.
"I don't like fumbling the ball, turning it over," he said. "So it was my fault, but I'm definitely happy that I had another chance to come back and make up for it with a kick return."
According to Whitehead, the play made an impression with the right kind of teammate.
"I talked to Dez, and he said 'That's why I respect you, because you bounce back,'" he said.
Corey White came up with two pass breakups – both of which could have been interceptions – in his Cowboys debut. He didn't give up any big plays, and his play was enough to draw praise from defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
And yet, sitting in his locker after the game, he couldn't have sounded more disappointed.
"I should have had two picks – I played terrible," he said. "I could have had picks. PBU's don't mean nothing in this game – get picks."
That seems like an awfully harsh assessment for a preseason debut, but it's understandable. White came within fingertips of making two-game changing plays and said he needs to work on coming back to the ball.
If he can improve on that, he'll undoubtedly draw more praise in the future. For now, not even Marinelli's compliments seemed to do.
"I appreciate him, but I hold myself to a higher standard," White said. "I could have had two turnovers, in my eyes. I had missed ops – two missed ops. But I appreciate it."