OXNARD, Calif. – Last Saturday, Mark Nzeocha's parents stayed up all night watching their son play his first career NFL snaps on defense and intercept a pass in the second quarter.
They sent him congratulatory texts after the Cowboys' preseason opener against the Rams. The game ended around 8 p.m. Pacific Time in L.A. Back home in Nzeocha's native Germany, it was 5 in the morning.
"It means a lot that people back home are supporting what you're doing," Nzeocha said.
A seventh-round pick a year ago, Nzeocha spent most of his rookie season on the Non-Football Injury list rehabbing a knee injury suffered in his final college season at Wyoming. He joined the active roster for the final seven games and played special teams in two.
In Year Two, Nzeocha has a chance to crack the linebacker rotation. He covers a lot of ground for his 6-3, 240-pound frame, and speed is a prerequisite for linebackers in Rod Marinelli's defense.
Nzeocha played both middle (Mike) and weak-side (Will) linebacker against the Rams and tied for the team lead with five tackles and an interception that set up a field goal. He's also playing on multiple special teams units.
"He's one of those guys who did not get much of a chance last year just because of the knee injury, but he's worked very hard to come back," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "He's a very good athlete. You're starting to see the athleticism we saw from him on tape in college.
"Again, he's a young player. He has to learn a lot about how we want to do things. The system, the techniques, all of that. But he's making strides and we're giving him plenty of chances, both on defense and in the kicking game."
Nzeocha didn't start playing club football in Germany until he was 14 years old, and his high school didn't have a football program. After a productive college career in the U.S., he spent a large part of his rookie NFL season on the sideline.
The plan is to take a step forward in 2016.
"This year is full-go. It's definitely a daily grind, but something that's definitely much needed," he said. "I feel like I've improved a lot by going through the grind, going through the daily routine and all of that. It's definitely been an experience."