IRVING, Texas – One player was a four-star recruit who went from junior college to the Southeastern Conference and immediately made an impact, appearing in 13 games with five starts and an interception in 2010.
The other was a sparsely recruited receiver who started just one year in high school and switched positions multiple times at a Southern Conference school, before finally moving over to defense his final season.
They both ended up in Dallas, but it was the former who joined the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent and the latter who entered town as a third-round draft pick.
The former player, Jakar Hamilton – once ranked as the second-best junior college player in the country – transferred from Georgia to South Carolina State for academic and health reasons, but certainly not for a lack of talent. The latter player, J.J. Wilcox, played receiver and running back in college before demonstrating enough potential at safety to warrant a mid-round selection.
Despite their vastly different routes to the NFL, they now find themselves in similar situations and have developed a friendship in their brief time together. Though they're competing at the same position, Hamilton hasn't been bashful when it comes to offering tips to the third-round pick.
After all, he's played the position three more years.
"I had heard of him, great safety down at Georgia Southern," Hamilton said of Wilcox. "When I met him, he was a real cool guy, had his head on straight. You can tell he played safety for one year, I played maybe three or four. There're some things I help him on, there're some things he helps me on. We just try to work together and try to get through this."
Hamilton learned from some of the best college safeties and coaches throughout his long journey to the NFL. He competed at Georgia alongside Bacarri Rambo, a sixth-round pick of the Redskins who now becomes his division rival.
"To go out there and to compete and to start with him and play with him and learn how to play free safety, because I only played one year when I got to Georgia, it was a wonderful experience," Hamilton recalled. "We're still friends to this day. I still hit him up, he'll hit me up.
"But going to South Carolina State was like a cultural shock. You don't get the stipends. You don't get as much equipment. The speed program's a little different. You've got more technology at Georgia and more things to use. It was pretty much a culture shock. Not too much different as far as competition, because you get a lot of guys who don't qualify or something happens at another school."
Hamilton never gave up the NFL dream when he switched to a smaller school, but uncertainty about his NFL future did cross his mind at one point. Those thoughts quickly dissipated, though. He wasn't going to let the transfer affect his goal.
"It's not about where you start, it's how you finish," Hamilton's coaches would tell him. "I'm trying to finish as strong as possible."
If Hamilton can do just that at training camp, he may be able to find a spot on this team and eventually compete for playing time at safety.
Wilcox has already heeded the same advice Hamilton was given, earning almost all of his looks from NFL scouts during [embedded_ad] his final year in college at Georgia Southern. He's come a long way from being a freshman receiver.
"It was a journey," Wilcox said. "Coming in as a one-year starter in high school, I didn't have too many options. I went to a receiving camp, and Georgia Southern was there, Samford was there. I went to Georgia Southern, and it felt like home. The coaching staff there was consistent through the recruiting process."
The staff eventually moved him to safety, and the rest is history, after he recorded 88 tackles and two interceptions his senior year.
As Wilcox and Hamilton begin their experiences in the NFL, their roles have reversed from where they started in college. Hamilton said he can see the other draft picks making their mark, and as a high-potential free agent safety, he knows he has to make the most of fewer opportunities.
On the other end, Wilcox realizes the pressure accumulates when a draft pick steps on the field.
"You have to come out here every day and prove yourself because every day you're being recruited and they're trying to find someone better than you," Wilcox said. "Every day I step foot on this field, I'm going to bring my A-game and try to make the most of it, because you never know when your last (opportunity) is."