FRISCO, Texas – J.J. Wilcox started games alongside Barry Church for the better part of three seasons. He understands the role he's stepping into for the Cowboys' injured defensive captain.
"It's some big shoes to fill," Wilcox said.
Church, the starting strong safety, is expected to miss several weeks with a broken forearm, and head coach Jason Garrett said Monday he anticipates Wilcox moving into the starting lineup.
Wilcox is ready for the opportunity. The Cowboys' 2013 third-round pick became the team's full-time starting free safety by his second season, but 2015 first-rounder Byron Jones' emergence moved him into a part-time role.
Now in his fourth season, Wilcox has made the most of his playing time (51.8 percent of the defensive snaps). He has thrived in the Cowboys' safety rotation, tallying 20 tackles and a forced fumble through seven games.
He has made key energizing plays in the two of the Cowboys' comeback wins: a third-down pass breakup against San Francisco 49ers receiver Jeremy Kerley, and a big hit on Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles in last Sunday's overtime victory.
"I think he's playing with more confidence," Garrett said. "He's more comfortable. I think he's making fewer mistakes and he's making more big plays. He's making plays on the ball in the passing game. He's making a number of big physical hits for us.
"He, like every safety I've ever been around, he misses tackles. But I think he has minimized those. But I think he makes an impression."
Church has been effective alongside Jones, ranking second on defense with 64 tackles and leading the team in interceptions (2).
The Cowboys view both safety spots as interchangeable, and Wilcox has gotten comfortable playing both this season.
He has never focused on reduced playing time – just what he could do with it.
Now he has a chance to keep the momentum going for a Cowboys defense that allowed three points in its final five series against the Eagles.
"Stuff could've went a lot worse," he said. "I could be out of the league now. I could be with a different team. I could've been going from three or four different teams. I've been blessed to be in this situation now and that's how I take this opportunity."