OXNARD, Calif. – Practice contact is a bit frowned upon in the modern NFL – look no further than the morning walkthroughs or the lack of tackling at Cowboys training camp for proof.
"We always are wanting to teach our players how to practice," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett on Wednesday. "We never want players on the ground in practice in terms of tackling or pulling guys down."
Rookie safety J.J. Wilcox has yet to receive that memo, to this point in his career. Lauded for his physicality as a third-round draft choice, Wilcox has wasted no time in displaying his physicality in the Cowboys' defensive backfield.
Wilcox put on pads for the first time as a Cowboy on Tuesday, and in that brief timespan he's quickly gained ground as one of this defense's most aggressive players.
"I haven't put on pads since the Senior Bowl, so it's been a long time coming just to get a chance to fly around on this type of level and showcase what you've got," Wilcox said. "I take pride in being physical and aggressive, and I just wanted to get a chance to showcase that, and I think I did."
Cowboys running back Phillip Tanner was the first person to learn that, when he broke through the defensive line and caught a chest full of Wilcox's shoulder – an uncustomary tackle for a practice.
"I picked him up, and I apologized for it. We're all teammates and we're all out here competing to have fun and get better," Wilcox said. "It wasn't no hard feelings – I apologized for it. But I just wanted to play full speed."
It's a funny dichotomy that Wilcox would lay the first wood of his career on Tanner, a running back. Wilcox himself was a tailback for Georgia Southern prior to the position switched that helped him become the highest-drafted player in GSU history.
"There's a lot of anger built up, man," he said. "I took a lot of licks and blows in college, so to finally get a chance to dish some back out, it's fun."
Garrett has the tough job of encouraging that kind of passion without letting the rookie hurt anyone. It's a fine line to walk for any coach, and an issue Garrett said applies to the likes of Sean Lee and Cowboys great Bill Bates.
"He's been tackling guys all spring. That's a good thing," Garrett said. "I say that honestly, it's a challenging thing for a coach because you want guys to play hard."
A day will come soon enough when Wilcox won't have to hold back at all. The Cowboys' preseason opener against Miami is in just 11 days. The follow-up trip to play against Oakland is a mere five days after that.
"I'm real excited to see him go out and continue to grow and mature and have to do it under the lights and in the big arena. I'm really excited about that," said defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson.
Added Wilcox: "I'm really looking forward to it. That's my first time on an NFL field, and hopefully I'll get the star the side of on my helmet. It'll be very fun to fly around with my teammates and hit a different colored jersey."
That all sounds like pretty big-time stuff, especially coming from a top 100 draft pick – a guy who netted a signing bonus of roughly half a million dollars earlier this summer. If Wilcox hopes to make big-time plays, his warm demeanor and nonchalant interviews don't belie a big-time attitude.
Asked if he missed any particular food he couldn't get in the training camp cafeteria, Wilcox laughed.
"I can't complain, because when it's free you can't complain," he said. "I love it all. I'm a greedy kid, I like to eat and have fun."
Onfield fun for Wilcox would be making plays. Veterans Will Allen and Barry Church seem to have a bead on the starting jobs, but the rookie is going to have ample opportunity in the coming weeks. That's something opposing teams will have to watch out for, as there won't be any Cowboys coaches to dial him down.
"I take it upon myself to know my job and my responsibility to come out here and play full speed to help this team win," he said. "It's a great sign of respect from myself to come out here and play hard and play fast. Because the Cowboys deserve that, and I want to make sure I can be in the best position to make plays."