OXNARD, Calif. – The first padded practices of training camp are, as Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says, "real football."
Last year, Xavier Woods shined brightest when the preseason games started. This year, he's looking to settle in as the first-team free safety from Day One.
"Just trying to fly around," he said.
Last year, the Cowboys figured they had a steal when they traded up to draft Woods in the sixth round, two rounds later than their evaluation grade. For the first two weeks in camp, the coaching staff waited for Woods to show the instincts and playmaking that made him a star at Louisiana Tech.
Then they got to Canton, Ohio, for the Hall of Fame Game.
"All of a sudden he's hitting everybody and he's around the ball a lot and really making plays," Garrett said. "And it's really what we thought we had when we drafted him because that's how he played in college.
"You want to show up then. You don't want to show up when you have the shorts on."
Saturday, the pads came on for the first time in Oxnard. With Byron Jones now playing outside at cornerback, Woods is the frontrunner to start at free safety this season.
Last year, Woods' snap count doubled in the final five games while Orlando Scandrick, now with the Redskins, was injured. The Cowboys went 4-1 with three draft picks – Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Woods – as essentially the top three corners.
Woods believes that final month made all of the young DBs "really comfortable back there."
"Like with a lot of rookies, as they go, they become more comfortable. They become confident," Garrett said. "They start cutting it loose a little bit. They start showing up. We felt like he deserved those opportunities and wanted to see him out there. I think he took advantage of them."
The Cowboys didn't draft a safety or add one in free agency, partly because of their belief in Woods and Kavon Frazier. But executive vice president Stephen Jones said this offseason it's a position they'll monitor depending on how the current guys perform in preseason.
Woods says he isn't looking over his shoulder.
"I just worry about what I can control, and that's me playing out there every day," he said. "I'm trying to give them a reason not to want anybody."