FRISCO, Texas – Rod Marinelli chuckled and gave a classic football answer when he was asked about one of his youngest new defenders.
At what point did you feel comfortable playing Xavier Woods, normally a safety, at nickel back?
"I think when he played good," Marinelli said with a smile.
They say there's no substitute for live action, and there's no way to truly evaluate a player until he sees some. It certainly seems like the Cowboys are learning that about their rookie defensive backs – and maybe none more so than Woods.
Yes, there's something to be said for Jourdan Lewis, who is handling himself quite well after missing the entirety of training camp with a hamstring injury. But Lewis is at least playing the position he was drafted to play.
Woods, the sixth-round pick that the Cowboys traded up to select in April, has seen a little bit of everything. When injuries left them depleted in Week 2 at Denver, it was Woods that the Cowboys' coaches threw into the fray at nickel back against the Broncos.
"They told me to just be ready," Woods said. "I knew the number count was low, so they wanted me to play the nickel spot, the down spot, the safety spot – so I had to learn everything."
Through the last two weeks, Woods has done just that. He helped the Cowboys get through that Week 2 loss at nickel back, and he carried it over into Monday Night Football. In the 28-17 win against the Cardinals, the rookie was every – lining up in the slot, playing dime and even jumping in at safety.
He finished the night with three tackles, and he narrowly missed a pick-six on a ball that Carson Palmer threw right at him in the slot.
"One of the things we liked so much about him was just his football IQ, his instincts, his feel for the game," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "He seemed to be around the ball a lot in college. And those are the traits that drove us most to him."
Woods flashed that potential early in the preseason, when he led the team in tackles against this week's opponent, the Los Angeles Rams. As dynamic as he was in that game, though, a hamstring injury limited him for most of the rest of training camp, and it seemed uncertain when he'd get his chance in the regular season.
But as Garrett likes to say, injury has a way of creating opportunities. Thanks to the guidance of veterans like Orlando Scandrick, Woods said he wasn't worried about getting playing time – not even on short notice, like he did in Denver.
"I was confident. I was confident," Woods said. "I knew the nickel position, I knew what I had to do. I had studied it. I learn from O every day, so I mean I was ready."
Woods is similar to Lewis in that regard, according to Marinelli. Neither player has a ton of in-game experience, but neither player seems to mind. In a sport where confidence is everything, both rookies seem to have plenty of it, on top of the wherewithal to go out and make plays.
That much has been established. Now, it's just a matter of continuing to hone those abilities.
"When guys earn that stuff, you just keep working with them," Marinelli said. "These guys are very conscientious guys, so they're going to go out and work at it, each and every day."
Heading into Week 4, there's reason for optimism that the secondary's injury problems are in the past. Lewis is recovering from a hamstring injury that doesn't appear to be serious, and Nolan Carroll is working his way back from a concussion.
Even if that's the case, the Cowboys know now that Woods can handle himself. The smart bet would be to stay prepared.
"I'm ready for whatever – nickel, dime, safety. I'm learning every position," he said. "Every week it's getting better and better, and I think it comes with patience. It's a long season."