OXNARD, Calif. – Maybe Ernie Sims knows it's "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel.
The veteran linebacker has looked like quite the predator in the back of the Cowboys' defense at this training camp. Never was that more clear than at Tuesday's practice, when Sims laid enough hits on running back Lance Dunbar to prompt a full-team scuffle.
"It's like two males in the wild, you know? The male comes and strikes at you, you're going to strike back," Sims said. "We're playing football – it's a physical sport. Me, I look at it as animals in the wild – it's domination, that's what it's all about."
If this was in fact a nature documentary, Sims said he'd opt to be a lion rather than a shark. It's fitting, since the former first round pick from Detroit landed in Dallas as a much-needed body during last season's rash of injuries throughout the defense.
"My nickname is 'Gator,' they call me Gator. Last season they called me 'Pitbull'. But my favorite animal is the lion," Sims said. "I played for the Lions, but just I like how dominant he is, and he takes care of his pride. That's the way I look at it now – I've got a family, I've got a wife, I've got a two-year-old son. That's how I approach every day now."
That mindset has shown clearly for Sims to this point in camp – even before the dustup with Dunbar. Sims has played well enough to earn his way into plenty of first-string reps during practice, even past more prominent names like Alex Albright and perhaps even Justin Durant.
The vast majority of Dallas' starters sat last weekend during the preseason opener against Miami. But Sims started the game alongside Durant, even if it was a limited appearance.
"Whatever they decide, that's what they'll do – whether it's special teams, starting, second team," Simsa said. "I just come out here and give it my best every day, get better every day, compete every day, make plays and try to help this team. Whatever fate they have for me, that's the way it is."
If some are surprised by Sims' tenacity and opportunism in securing a roster spot, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett isn't among them. Garrett said he's been impressed by Sims' simple mindset since the Cowboys signed him to help replace Sean Lee last fall – making the fourth stop of his career, he is running out of chances.
"Often times you see that with college free agents who understand they have one shot and their mindset is, 'I am going to make everything out of this opportunity I have in front of me each and every day.' And I think Ernie has done that," Garrett said.
Sims' teammates agree. Albright works heavily with Sims among the second-string linebackers at practice. The third-year linebacker laughed Wednesday when asked what made Sims mad.
"Everything. Everything. Ernie always plays with a chip on his shoulder, and I think that's why he plays as hard and as fast as he does," Albright said.
It helps explain why Sims would play to the whistle – and even slightly past it – on plays that helped instigate the fight on Tuesday. But that's just part of training camp, as Sims and basically any football player would say. Entering his eighth-year in the league, Sims said similar disputes were a near-daily experience in Detroit practices.
"That's the reason why I asked my wife to come out here, so I can at least see my wife – so I don't have to see these men all the time," he said. "Bundled up and pushing men all the time – you get tired of it after a while. Running, people yelling at you – it's just the way it is."
Sims said after Wednesday morning's walkthrough that he intends to smooth things over with Dunbar. He also told defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin he'll stop with the late contact – at least, as much as possible. Don't expect to see No. 59 slack on any of the intensity.
"I'm a good player, and I'm going to go out here and do what I have to do to make this team. So if coach asked me not to throw him to the ground, I'm going to keep running hard, I'm going to keep running to the ball, I'm going to keep trying to make a difference," Sims said. "But if coach asked me not to throw him to the ground, I'm not going to do it."
That's not going to hold him back, though. Sims seems to have entered the discussion for starting consideration after starting six games last year. The switch to Kiffin's 4-3 defense – Sims' most natural fit – can only have helped. Sims has years of experience playing on the strong side, but the coaching staff is also willing to try him as a weak side linebacker. He even played middle linebacker in 2012 while Lee was gone.
"I'm smart enough to learn all of them, and I have the experience to play all of them," Sims said.
That's got to be a benefit when remembering the Cowboys' injury issues in the linebacker corps last year. And while Sims was quick to soft play his goals during training camp, he said he feels good about the case he's made.
"I'm making plays. That's the name of the game is to make plays – make a difference," Sims said. "When I see myself on film and I'm making tackles, making pass defenses or whatever, I feel comfortable about that. I feel comfortable about it, and I think my peers and my coaches see the same thing."