Just scratching the surface

IRVING, Tex. - NFL rookies talk every year about "the jump" they must make when they get to a professional team's training camp for the first time. The players are bigger and faster, practices are run at a higher pace, and the hitting … the hitting is described as a combination of violence and brutality.

That's the refrain of players who arrive in the NFL after playing their college ball in college football's elite conferences: the Southeastern Conference, the Pac-12, the ACC, the Big 10 and the Big 12. Players in those conferences face off every week against teams full of players bound for the NFL. It's not professional-caliber opposition, but it is thought to be as close a representation as there is.

Then consider the case of safety J.J. Wilcox, who was chosen by the Dallas Cowboys in the third round of the recent NFL Draft out of Georgia Southern. First-round pick Travis Frederick arrived in Dallas after spending his college career at Wisconsin, where he regularly faced NFL-bound linemen from Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State. Wide receiver Terrance Williams, of Baylor, had to figure out a way to get open against defensive backs from schools like Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas State, the same defenses that tried to corral Oklahoma State running back Joseph Randle. When his team made it to the conference games on its schedule, sixth-round draftee DeVonte Holloman of South Carolina had to tangle with players from football factories like Alabama, LSU and Florida.

Wilcox, on the other hand, played in a conference with teams like Western Carolina, Elon, College of Charleston, Wofford, Samford, Furman … not exactly a roll call of college football's elite.

To say that Wilcox has noticed a difference between college at Georgia Southern and the NFL — even after just a three-day rookie mini-camp in which hitting was limited because of league rules preventing players from wearing any protective gear outside of a helmet — would be an understatement. Wilcox said he already is well aware that he needs to increase his intensity needs in order to keep up with his new teammates … and that's before the veterans even arrive on the practice field.

"It's a different atmosphere and intensity," he said. "It's way more … it's two times better and two times faster. Some plays, in college, like I said, you can slack off one or two plays in college. Not here — not in this game. Just the speed, the intensity … the whole atmosphere is different.

"Looking at it on TV is different than actually getting out here at full speed. So you have to catch up and pick up, just adapt to it."

If that weren't enough of a reason for Wilcox to feel like an underdog fighting for a roster spot, there also is the fact that the 2012 season was his first playing safety … in his life. Wilcox, whose defensive experience was limited to a stint as a linebacker in high school, played running back for the Georgia Southern offense until last season. Although his experience in the secondary is limited, Wilcox said his time spent on offense has helped him in his transition to the other side of the ball.

"It helped out a lot," he said. "Knowing certain keys, knowing running back tendencies, the wide receiver tendencies, and just learn the different keys and attributes that come from the offense — it helps out on defense a lot.

"My head coach, Jeff Monken came to me and said, ‘hey, I need some leadership in the secondary. I need somebody that's going to be physical, aggressive, and be a leader back there," Wilcox said. "He said I fit that description the best, and he gave it to me and I ran with it from there."

When a player is chosen in the third round — Dallas picked Wilcox with the 80th overall selection of the draft — it means the team choosing him thinks that even if the player doesn't start right away, he can play sooner, not later. Wilcox looks at it another way: he said he thinks that his relative inexperience in the secondary means he has just scratched the surface of his potential.

"I think so," he said. "I think that helps me out a lot, because, especially playing offense for three years — ball skills, footwork — I think the coaching staff that we have here is definitely one of the best ones, and they're going to help me grow and (make) me into a great player."

Wilcox admitted Monken's request to move to defense disappointed him at first, as he felt he was making considerable progress as a ball carrier for the Eagles.

"It was kind of heartbreaking, at first, because I was getting the offense down pretty good, learning the schemes, learning the defenses, and he asked me to switch," he said. "So it just shows I can be versatile, bring a lot of different stuff to the table, adapt fast and just be an accountable player.

"I was kind of hesitant at first. I talked to my parents, and my parents told me, ‘just be the best team player you can be.' That's my tack — that's what I hope to bring here to the Cowboys: be a good team player and hopefully bring a Super Bowl here."

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