IRVING, Texas – By the time the Cowboys got to their first preseason game this past August, rookie Lucky Whitehead was already becoming a household name.
Whether it was his blazing speed and quickness, or the long dreadlocks with the red tips at the ends, or even his No. 13 jersey that fits his nickname perfectly, Whitehead was turning heads in more ways than one.
But, that was practice. Once the Cowboys got to San Diego for the Aug. 13 preseason opener, it was time for him to show off his skills under the lights.
What happened instead was a fumble in the open field that spoiled a 19-yard punt return. And while Whitehead still got chances to succeed, and even did enough to make the 53-man roster, it seemed as if the coaches had lost some trust and hope in the dazzling rookie.
Fast forward 12 games into the regular season and needless to say, the trust has more than returned. The Cowboys have started to give Whitehead more and more opportunities, in both the offense and return game.
Last week in Washington, Whitehead sparked a scoring drive with a 22-yard run off a jet-sweep reverse. But he probably impacted the game the most with a 46-yard kickoff return in the final minute of play, which led to Dan Bailey's game-winning kick.
"He is providing a little bit of a spark for us," head coach Jason Garrett said of Whitehead. "He's a damn good player. He plays the game with a spirit that's hard not to like. He plays hard, he plays fast, and he's got a great competitive way about him. I think he's maximized his opportunities. So he's certainly added a lot to our offense and to our team."
Garrett said the spirit and attitude were traits Whitehead possessed right away when they signed him as an undrafted free agent from Florida Atlantic.
"Ever since he got here, you never felt like he thought it was too big," Garrett said. "He came in here with a competitive spirit and a competitive nature that's allowed him to have the success that he's had up to this point. I think another part of him is he loves to play. He's got awareness as a player that goes with his ability to make some plays."[embeddedad0]
One of the plays for which the Cowboys are using Whitehead more is the off-tackle runs he takes from the quarterback. To make sure the rookie is at top-speed when he gets the ball, it takes timing from both the receiver and quarterback.
"For me, I know how to time it up. I know his cadence," Whitehead said of the veteran Matt Cassel. "He knows when it to say, 'Hike!' It's pretty much on cue. If I slow down, it messes the play up. It's a big timing play."
But with Whitehead's speed, it also has the potential to produce big yards.
"Yeah, it's on the defense so quick. It's hard to react. They're like 'What just happened?' But I love that play."
But just as he learned the hard way back during the preseason, no play is a good play if he doesn't end up with the ball.
"We talk about the ball a lot," Whitehead said. "I've definitely emphasized it to myself that I have to protect it better. It's all about the ball. I think the coaches are gaining trust in me, but I've got to make sure I keep doing things the right way."