IRVING, Texas – Anthony Hitchens' tune has changed.
The fourth-round pick, who played weak side linebacker in college, was drafted to be Sean Lee's backup at middle linebacker. Less than a month after joining the Cowboys, he watched Lee go down for the season and admitted he wasn't prepared with such limited reps at that point to immediately jump in as the starting middle linebacker.
"But I will get there," Hitchens vowed in May. "It's going to take time…I have time to get better."
With three months passed, he feels ready for that role.
In fact, both rookie linebacker draft picks feel much more prepared for what they need to do to make the team. For seventh-round pick Will Smith, that could mean squeaking onto the 53-man roster. For Hitchens, that could potentially mean a starting role.
After preparing to be a middle linebacker in the offseason, Hitchens switched over to the weak side – a position he's more accustomed to playing. Hitchens said it doesn't matter to him whether he's inside or outside, and he was warned he could get bumped around.
He wasn't done moving, though.
After making the switch to the outside, the Cowboys then bumped him back inside to middle linebacker. He used to work with the backups, but the rookie, who never made the defensive calls in college, has been taking some first-team middle linebacker reps this week at practice.
He was touted for his position flex coming out of school, and the Cowboys' coaches are taking full advantage of that.
"He seemed to be able to handle it," said head coach Jason Garrett. "He's a smart guy. I think he cares about it and wants to learn and wants to be as good as he can be, but he was particularly good in practice (Wednesday) playing that Mike spot."
Justin Durant began the offseason as the starting middle linebacker. Then the Cowboys added Rolando McClain, who has also taken some starting middle linebacker reps the last couple weeks and appears to be getting groomed for a starting role.
Meanwhile, Hitchens continues to go about his business.
The rookie doesn't appear bothered by anything around him, despite the competition on the inside. In his first preseason game against the Chargers, Hitchens finished second on the team with eight combined tackles, including a tackle for loss.
"Every game's going to give me confidence, just being able to play," he said. "That first tackle you get, you get a feeling in your body, like, 'Yeah, I'm here. I can do this.' It gets you more and more confidence as you keep playing – more in practice than games, I think."
Practice is where he needs to prove to coaches he's mentally prepared for a role in the middle. Hitchens said the greatest challenge is the communication required. He's asked to set the front, make the checks and ensure everyone around him is lined up correctly. That's a role he didn't have in college.
All of Hitchens' work the past few days has been at middle linebacker, where everyone's looking to him. If he wasn't ready, they wouldn't give him those first-team opportunities.
"It's a big opportunity, mentally and physically, to see where I stand," Hitchens said. "It's a lot different pace from the ones to the twos in practice. It's a big opportunity for me."
Hitchens said he wouldn't be surprised if he got moved again, despite there being only a couple weeks before the season opener. It doesn't bother him, though. Even when he was getting work on the weak side, he was taught to learn the middle linebacker spot.
Since things have slowed down for Hitchens, he's playing more freely and he feels more prepared for any switch that comes his way.
"I'm reading my keys a little better, I'm moving a little better, lost a couple pounds," Hitchens said. "So yeah, everything's slowing down for me and I'm getting in the swing of things."
Hitchens is the most prominent rookie linebacker, but another rookie linebacker is preparing to make his mark after laboring through an injury-plagued start to training camp. [embedded_ad]
A groin injury prevented Smith from making his mark until the Ravens game last week, when he got his first solo tackle of the preseason near the line of scrimmage with 1:11 remaining in the game on a third down run to give the Cowboys a chance to tie the game.
That was Smith's biggest play of the preseason, and with a need at linebacker after the news about DeVonte Holloman, a couple more good games from Smith could mean a roster spot for the rookie. He said with all the time missed, he feels like he needs to play twice as well to cap the preseason.
The hit against the Ravens got his confidence up moving forward.
"Just the pressure on myself, I have to get back to where I was at," Smith said. "It's just part of the game. Injuries have to happen. You've got to bounce back."
Given the injury, Smith said he naturally wonders about where he fits on the roster. While he doesn't want to dwell on it, he knows if he's going to make the team, it'll have to be by impressing special teams coach Rich Bisaccia. Smith said he's starting to play much better on special teams than he did early on.
"I've always grown up a linebacker first and then a special teams guy," Smith said. "It finally might be the other way around."