ARLINGTON, Texas – It's fitting rookie Randy Gregory caught the punt that sent the Cowboys home from training camp a day early last week.
Three games into preseason, the second-round pick looks every bit like the first-round talent who fell to the Cowboys at No. 60, prompting roars of excitement down the halls of Valley Ranch on draft night.
With three sacks in three games, not to mention two forced holding penalties against the 49ers and another sack called back Saturday against the Vikings due to a defensive holding penalty, Gregory could deliver a major pass rushing impact earlier than expected in his first NFL season.
"He's into it. His exuberance – we call it 'youthful,' but his passion – it's all out there in front of him," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "The lights are bright but they're not too bright for him. I think he's going to be a big part of our success this year."
The Cowboys need him to be, especially with Greg Hardy facing a reduced four-game NFL suspension beginning Sept. 5.
Veteran Jeremy Mincey, the team's sack leader in 2014, has been the starter at right defensive end in preseason with Gregory and Hardy backing him up in the base defense and substituting in sub-packages. Gregory and Mincey, as well as DeMarcus Lawrence on the left side, will be counted on heavily without Hardy in the first month of the regular season.
Gregory's quick first step made him a national standout at Nebraska, but he's added several pounds to his frame since the offseason. And the "heavy hands" head coach Jason Garrett noticed early in camp were evident in the first quarter against the Vikings, when Gregory bull-rushed left tackle Matt Kalil off the right edge and brought down quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
"He's a young player, but he's a good football player. I think we all saw that on tape coming out," Garrett said. "Obviously he's a natural rusher and he has some really interesting physical traits that a lot of the good rushers have.
"He's got length, he's got quickness, he's got explosiveness, he can bend, and he accelerates to the quarterback. He's around the ball as a rusher and he's around the ball as a run defender, too. The more he plays, the better he's going to get."
Practicing against All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith has helped, too. Recently recovered from a biceps strain, Smith provides a daily challenge that should make Gregory's job seem easier on Sundays.
"Tyron's back, so he's giving me fits again," Gregory said with a smile.
"I've learned a lot – I can keep going down the list with it. I keep preaching about hand placement and I think that's the biggest thing I've worked on so far in camp. I really felt like my legs were getting under me a little bit better each day. Hopefully I can go back, look at film, figure out what I can get better at."
The Cowboys are back from Oxnard, preparing for Thursday's preseason finale and the Sept. 13 season opener against the Giants. They flew home a day earlier than scheduled last Thursday when Garrett issued a unique challenge: If an offensive or defensive lineman could catch one of six punts from Chris Jones, the month-long camp was over.
The veterans volunteered a rookie, and Gregory – a running back in high school – made good on the first attempt.
Good way to win over his veteran teammates.
Back in Dallas, the rookie's earning more and more respect.
"He's growing right now," Mincey said. "He's around a great group of guys and he's growing up right before our eyes."