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September 20, 2013

J.J. Wilcox set be first rookie to start at safety for Cowboys since 2006; Garrett says he’s ready

Coach Jason Garrett hasn't fully admitted it and rookie safety J.J. Wilcox did his to best play coy with the media.

But the third-round pick from tiny Georgia Southern has worked with the starters alongside strong safety Barry Church in practice and is target to place veteran Will Allen with the first team in Sunday's game against the Rams.

Team vice president Stephen Jones confirmed on the radio Friday afternoon, however, that Wilcox will indeed start, becoming the first rookie to start at safety for the Cowboys since Pat Watkins in 2006.

"He did get some snaps with the first team," Garrett said. "He has done a nice job. He is getting better and better over the course of training camp and the early part of the season. He is a good football player. Will Allen has done some nice things for us as well. We are just getting those guys ready to play."

That Wilcox is on the verge of being a starter for the Cowboys is even more interesting when you consider his background. He played running back and receiver at tiny Georgia Southern for three years before moving to safety as a senior. And even after being drafted by the Cowboys, he was forced to miss 11 days in training camp following the death of his mother, Marshell, thus slowing his development.

"Yeah, but it’s all about what you dream of," Wilcox said when asked if the he's surprised by the opportunity so early. "When u get a chance to finally do it, you got to be ready, it’s a dream come true, a small town kid, a small time school coming to the big show and this is what you look for what you dream for."

Garrett admits to having had concerns about Wilcox's background but that was before he showed up. Since then, he's been nothing but impressive with his attitude, instincts, athleticism and playmaking skills. He said Wilcox has certainly progressed enough for an opportunity to start.

"Well, we like what he’s done and we drafted him where we drafted him for a reason and that was a concern of ours just really based on biography more than anything else," Garrett said. "It wasn’t anything we necessarily saw on tape that would be a concern for us. He was a small school guy, didn’t have a lot of experience playing the position in college but since playing here he’s demonstrated the ability to pick things up quickly. He’s an instinctive player. He has a good feel for the game and a good feel for being around the football and making plays."

Despite missing 11 days in training camp and one preseason game dealing with his mother's death, Wilcox still led the Cowboys in tackles during the preseason. He also had an interception. But he said he had some making up to do. 

"Anytime you stay a day away from football, it puts you weeks behind," Wilcox said. "So I had to catch up mentally and physically; Just get back into shape and get back mentally, just getting back into a groove and getting a feel for it and catching up with the schemes. Coach (Monte) Kiffin does a great job with me day in and day out staying after (practice), and it’s coming along pretty good."

Garrett said Wilcox's development has been rapid.

"He has improved a great deal," Garrett said. "He played really well in the spring. He had a good start to camp, then his mom passed away. That took him away from what we were doing here and rightfully so. It took him a little time coming back from that. Those are difficult things to do deal with. but he has found his stride again in the last few weeks. He has done a lot of good things."

The decision to move Wilcox into the start's role is also timely considering what lies ahead for the Cowboys. They play against the pass-happy Rams on Sunday, followed by the Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers and the Broncos and Peyton Manning.

Wilcox is faster than Allen. He covers better and plays better in space as well as being a ferocious hitter. Church said the rookie will bring more play-making skills to the secondary that will be under fire the next few weeks.

"His coverage skills are great and his hitting across the middle is going to have receivers scared and have alligator arms," Church said of Wilcox. "He brings that physical presence to the secondary. It should help create a lot of turnovers and be a boost."

There is a chance is Wilcox's father James and sister Lesha might be on hand for his first start on Sunday _ if they can find the time following his sister's cheerleading competition.

Certainly his thoughts before the game will return to his mother, whom he has called his inspiration for making the league. But there will be no regrets about her missing out on his momentous achievement.

"She's seen me play," Wilcox said of his mother. "She's had a chance to see her son actually make it to what I've always wanted to do. That’s the main thing, and I have to keep it living and just make her happy and do what she wanted me to do."

-- Clarence Hill 

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For the record, Georgia Southern has 20,000 students, more than a great number of FBS schools, and has been a powerhouse in the FCS for 30 years. We may just now be moving to FBS, but there is nothing about our school that is "tiny." We are incredibly proud of J.J. And the entire Eagle Nation is on his side!

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