SAN DIEGO -- Matt Johnson put a shoulder pad into the pile, and he remembered the feeling.
It had been a long time since he put on pads and hit in practice. Last October, in fact, at Eastern Washington before he finally opted for surgery to repair a biceps injury.
But this week, the rookie safety finally got to do it again when the Dallas Cowboys scrimmaged the San Diego Chargers. It was his first "live," or hitting, work since the Cowboys drafted him in the fourth round in April.
"Same stuff," he said. "You get 10 minutes into practice, and it's like you never took them off. It's like riding a bike."
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Problem is, Johnson doesn't have much time to ride that bike before the Cowboys start the season.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said it is too late for Johnson to compete for a starting position -- the Cowboys are going into the season with Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church -- which the team thought he could do when it drafted him.
"He's got to be out there and prove himself," Ryan said. "I think the kid's got good talent. We're excited about him, but he's got to get out there healthy so he can compete."
Johnson lost too much practice time. He participated in the rookie minicamp the week after the draft, but then he had to sit out the organized team activities, per NFL rules, because his school had not had its graduation.
He finally became eligible in time for the last practice of the veteran minicamp in June. He flew in, made the practice, but hurt his hamstring -- and so he spent all of training camp rehabbing it until last week, when he put on pads for individual work in Oxnard, Calif.
"Long time coming," he said. "I've known I've got to clean up some things. I'm just glad there's things to clean up."
The Cowboys were patient with Johnson because they are high on him. But with two preseason games played and the first cuts coming Monday and Friday of next week, there is not much time for Johnson to be sure he even makes the team.
"He just has to get himself acclimated as best he can in whatever role that he's ready to have for our football team," coach Jason Garrett said. "First of all, make our team. Have a role on our team. Which will be determined by how he does."
The Cowboys showed their faith in Johnson again this week. They paired him and Danny McCray as the second-team safeties, meaning Johnson bumped Mana Silva at free safety. He also worked on the punt coverage and punt return teams.
"He's a smart young kid," secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. "I expect him to be in place and know what he's got to do. The thing I think he will struggle with early is the little nuances, like, 'How do I actually play that? I know where I'm supposed to be; how do I actually now go execute that?'
"So that's what he's got to catch up on."
Johnson said he hasn't assumed he has made the team, but he's trying to prepare himself as if he's going to play in the season opener against the New York Giants.
"We've got a quick turnaround, and then it's going to be at New York in front of everybody," he said. "It's not going to be a practice or scrimmage. I've been preparing mentally for it. Hopefully I get a lot of work these next two weeks."
Henderson liked hearing that, but two weeks is only two weeks.
"He's missed so much time," Henderson said. "He's a smart kid, tough kid, he works. Doesn't talk a lot. Just a quiet kid who wants to show up and do a good job. We'll just see where he is and see what happens."