J.J. Wilcox can picture himself a year ago — running around, trying to learn fast, hitting everything in sight.
Even teammates. Especially teammates.
“I built a lot of enemies last camp,” he said.
Hey, he was just trying to make an impression. Drafted to play a position where he had only one year of college experience (and small college, at that), he at least had a natural love of hitting to fall back on.
But he had to learn a lot on the run.
“I was like a bat out of the cave,” he said. “This year, it’s a lot more smooth. I know what I’ve got to do and why I’m doing it.”
It is what the Cowboys were banking on when they chose not to add a safety in the premium rounds of the draft, using just a seventh-round pick on Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon and signing only a couple of undrafted free agents.
“That means a lot. I take a sense of pride in that,” he said. “The head guy, Jerry Jones, the head coach, Jason Garrett, and the defensive coordinator and defensive coaches feel the same thing. I take it as a great sense of pride and a great sense of respect.
“So I’m going to come in and work my tail off day in and day out to prove them right.”
The Cowboys don’t need much convincing. Executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team was ready in training camp last year to make Wilcox the starter alongside Barry Church.
But the death of Wilcox’s mother during camp and a knee injury during the season hampered Wilcox’s progress. So although no one feels like Wilcox got the most out of his rookie season, his work in the spring this year has the Cowboys no less convinced they have their potential answer.
“He showed a lot of good things in the early part of training camp and the preseason last year,” Garrett said. “I think he grew throughout the course of the season.
“I think when you step back after Year 1 and say, ‘OK, what do I need to do here? Everything is not the first time around. Now I can settle in and play with some more confidence.’ He’ll be in the system for his second year. I think he’s showing that.”
Wilcox is better at recognizing what is happening on the football field. But he also got better at recognizing what is happening in his head.
“Last year, I thought he was a little emotional at times — would kind of lose it, take him a while to come back down,” defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson said. “He’s a lot less of that and a lot more flat line and just communicating and playing and doing a good job.”
“Emotion’s good. Passion’s good. That’s one of the things that we were drawn to about him,” he said. “But you have to make sure it’s controlled. You have to make sure you’re able to do your assignments and play the right way within that. So I think he’s probably maturing and understanding what that balance is.”
Wilcox nodded. He used the term “roller coaster.”
“It was a big roller coaster,” he said. “I was up for one minute, and I’d be down again. Then I was up for another minute. I was hurt; there was a lot going on last year. This year is a lot more smooth sailing, and it makes it better.”