IRVING, Texas – The next rookie to make his way into the starting rotation could be J.J. Wilcox.
The third-round pick took reps early on during Thursday's practice with the first-team defense, and while he won't say whether or not he expects to start this weekend, it certainly seems like he might be in line to get more action defensively opposite Barry Church.
"You're only one snap away when you're a backup," Wilcox said. "With that being said, I think I am (ready). Like I said, I'm going to keep preaching just to be ready when my number's called. It's a great team going in a great direction, and I just want to be ready."
It's been noted that Wilcox only played one season at safety in college after moving over from the offensive side of the ball, but after a training camp, a preseason and a couple weeks of the regular season to fine tune his skills, he feels like he's ready to be a defensive contributor.
Church and Will Allen have been the two starters at safety through the first two weeks of the season. It seems Allen might be the casualty of the starting group if Wilcox were to get on the field.
Allen was brief and didn't talk much about the situation, but he tried to take the high road when asked about the circumstances. Though he looked somewhat dejected and disappointed, Allen did have positive things to say about Wilcox and believes the rookie has what it takes mentally.
"He's a good tackler, he's physical, he can get the ball," Allen said. "He's a good player. I've got a lot of respect for J.J."
Both Allen and Wilcox stressed that only defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and head coach Jason Garrett can really answer questions about who will start. Wilcox downplayed the importance of him working in with the starters at practice.
He said the team is just trying different rotations to see what works best between him, Allen, Church and Jeff Heath, but he did say it was fun working in with the ones and that it's gone a little different in practice than normal.
"It's a long season. That being said, we're trying to stay healthy as much as possible," Wilcox said. "Will's a 10-year vet. He's earned his stripes. A young pup like me has to come in and help up the slack."
Wilcox plays on the special teams units right now and laid a massive block for Dwayne Harris against the Chiefs on a punt return. But he also got a slight taste of what it's like to play safety in the NFL, going in for six plays defensively against the Giants.
It can take some time for any rookie draft pick to realize the enormity of the spot he's put in. For Wilcox, all those emotions hit him as he lined up across from Eli Manning in a meaningful situation. He said those reps helped ease him in early on, but it's also helped to be guarding some of the best in the game on his own team in Jason Witten and Tony Romo during practice.
If one thing was noticeable about Wilcox during the preseason and at training camp, it's that he can hit and seems to be a vacuum for the ball. The Cowboys could use those traits this weekend against tight end Jared Cook, who had seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns in the Rams' opener. [embedded_ad]
Wilcox may need some time to figure out the speed of regular season football, but Church said he thinks the rookie is more than capable of stepping in right now. Wilcox led the Cowboys in preseason tackles, according to coaches' film, with 15 solo stops and another five assists. He also picked off a pass and recorded two pass deflections.
"He's definitely a ball hawker, but he's also a physical presence back there," Church said. "Once he gets his pads on you, it's hard to get off him. If he puts a hit on you, you're going to feel that thing. Hopefully, when receivers come over the middle, he delivers a big hit, they'll kind of get wary and get alligator arms about going across the middle."
Church is prepared for whatever added obligations are placed upon him if Wilcox enters the game. He said Wilcox has a firm grasp of the defense now, and he's ready to help Wilcox as much as he needs to if the rookie takes the field.
One of the key things for Wilcox is taking the right angles, which he's working on with secondary coach Jerome Henderson and assistant secondary coach Joe Baker.
"If he's in the middle of the field and he takes a bad angle, that's a house call right there," Church said. "Being a safety, you have to be a great tackler and your angles have got to be great. Hopefully he'll get that together, and I'll work on him as well as Coach Baker and Coach Henderson. He should be good. He's in good shape."
Church has slowly become one of the veteran leaders in the defensive backfield, despite starting for just his second year and only three games last season before injury. He accepts that responsibility as he leads the younger guys.
One of those players looking his way this weekend might be Wilcox.
"I just have to be ready when my number's called," Wilcox said. "Will's a great person, a great mentor, a great player overall. So if something happens to him, I have to be ready, and it can't be a slack off from any position."