Wednesday, February 1 2023

By David Helman
FOX Sports Dallas Cowboys Writer

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — It’s nice to get a reminder that this can be fun. 

After a boring, laborious game last week in Denver, that’s exactly what Saturday night’s 32-18 victory at SoFi Stadium was for the Cowboys. It was fun as hell.

No, this wasn’t regular-season football. Both the Chargers and Cowboys sat the majority of their starters in what amounted to an audition for each team’s youth. 

But that’s the point. Even when the backups are on the field, it is possible to play entertaining football and showcase some young talent in the process. 

Hopefully that trend continues for the third and final exhibition game. For now, let’s get into what stood out against the Chargers. 

Early Returns 

It’s usually dangerous to assume too much from a preseason showing, but we can dispense with caution in this instance. KaVontae Turpin made this team Saturday night. 

If we’re being honest, the speedy return man might’ve already been a lock for the roster. But there’s no use debating that after Turpin stole the show with two return touchdowns against the Chargers. The first was a wonderful example of his straight-line speed, as he rode his blocks through the clutter of the kickoff team for a 98-yard kick return score. 

The second was even more impressive. Fielding a Los Angeles punt at his own 14-yard line late in the second quarter, Turpin showed fantastic vision and footwork to first dodge a tackler, then tiptoe his way past his first three blocks before hitting the gas near his own 30-yard line. 

By the time he reached the end zone eight seconds later, any questions about his future felt answered. 

“Speed kills,” Turpin said. “I took advantage of our blockers and the way they were blocking. I just felt like it was great for our special teams unit.”

It’s a fun story for one of the latest additions to this roster. Turpin signed with the Cowboys during the first week of training camp, having just finished the USFL season as that league’s MVP. That didn’t give him a ton of time to make a favorable impression — but possessing game-breaking speed can do wonders in that regard. 

“Clearly, in my opinion, he was the best player I saw in the USFL coming out,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “I’ve been so impressed with him since day one.”  

With CeeDee Lamb stepping into the top receiver role, the Cowboys entered training camp without a clear-cut return man. With a full week remaining in the preseason, it looks like they’ve found him. 

Timely Reminder  

Largely written off earlier this year, Trysten Hill is refusing to make things easy for anyone. 

This was seen as a pivotal summer for Hill, the young defensive tackle who was drafted No. 58 overall back in 2019. Injuries have prevented Hill from making the type of impact the Cowboys envisioned to this point in his career, and with so many young defensive tackles on this roster, this training camp felt like a crucial time for Hill to either make his mark or lose his roster spot. 

Saturday night was the biggest indication yet that Hill is trying to do the former. Doing the bulk of his work in the first half, he finished with three tackles and a sack. But to call it a sack doesn’t do it justice, as Hill managed to bend past his defender, into the pocket, swipe the ball out of Easton Stick’s hands and fall on it to set the Cowboys up inside the Chargers’ red zone. 

“I just wish I would’ve picked it up and ran for the touchdown,” Hill said. 

It was the best play of the past month for a guy who has flashed on plenty of occasions during training camp. And he didn’t just make splash plays, also drawing an offensive holding call that negated a 17-yard gain. 

“It feels good to see it come to fruition — knowing that it’s going to work and then believing in it,” Hill said. 

In this case, it feels early to declare Hill a roster lock. His skillset isn’t quite as unique as Turpin’s. But another strong showing emphasizes that it’d be a mistake to write him off, which also goes to show just how hard it’ll be for this coaching staff to trim down its defensive line. 

Grier’s Debut 

A groin injury delayed Will Grier‘s first game action as a Cowboy last week, but Saturday finally offered a glimpse of the other member of the backup quarterback battle. 

Grier practiced this week against the Chargers. And while Cooper Rush did start his second consecutive preseason game, he ceded the field to Grier in the second quarter, allowing the former third-round pick to lead five possessions. 

The results mainly mimicked what Grier has shown in training camp to this point. He had an average night of 6-for-10 passing for 98 yards and a nine-yard scramble — nothing that’s going to light the world on fire. 

But the completions he did make stand out. His first throw of the night was a short bullet to Jake Ferguson, allowing the rookie tight end to shake loose and run for additional yardage. He followed that up by threading a third-and-5 throw to Simi Fehoko, beating a breaking defensive back to pick up 11 yards. 

“When I cut it, I knew he didn’t have a chance of making it,” Grier said. “I’m not shy of cutting it, I’m always going to try to make a throw down the field. Tight-window throws, I think it’s important in this league to get first downs and move the chains. I’m not scared to make those throws.”

That has been the undeniable impression from watching Grier to this point. At the start of the fourth quarter, he lofted a back-shoulder ball to Brandon Smith, trusting the second-year receiver would come open if he turned his body the right way. It worked perfectly, and the 32-yard completion was the Cowboys’ longest gain of the night, setting up a field goal. 

Good luck figuring out if this means anything. Rush looked like a non-factor in the backup quarterback race last preseason before stealing the job from Garrett Gilbert at the 11th hour. What looks like a hotly contested competition could be anything but, depending on who you ask.  

At the very least, though, Grier is playing entertaining football and looking poised while he does it. That could pay dividends as this job audition winds to a close. 

Safety Class 

What a weird world we’re living in. It’s one thing that the Cowboys have themselves a solid safety group, but even the backups look impressive. 

Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson didn’t so much as sniff the field at SoFi Stadium, which gave us an extended look at Israel Mukuamu and Markquese Bell. And did they ever impress.

Mukuamu, enjoying a strong camp in his second season, made an impact early. Stick tried a deep shot against a Cover 2 look on the fifth play of the game for the Chargers. The ball was slightly overthrown, which made it simple for Mukuamu to drift toward the sideline and snag an easy interception. 

“Just playing with confidence right now,” Mukuamu said. “I really understand the scheme. It’s my second year in it, so I understanding making calls and getting people lined up.”

The interception is cool, but that last part is the important bit. It’s obvious from watching Mukuamu that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is trying to develop the youngster for Kearse’s role in this defense. 

Kearse made his name last year by quarterbacking this scheme as a linebacker/safety hybrid, playing equally well as a box safety, a coverage player and a matchup tool against tight ends. It remains to be seen if Mukuamu can do it as well, but he clearly has the required skillset. In addition to the interception, he finished with two other pass breakups and four tackles — two of which came at the line of scrimmage. 

Bell deserves mention there, as well. He doesn’t have quite the same length as Mukuamu, but the 6-2 hybrid player finished with five tackles in his own right. 

Quinn is looking for length, versatility and a nose for the football. Mukuamu and Bell have all three, and they showcased it Saturday. 

Kicker Check-In 

Call this one a wash. 

Lirim Hajrullahu and Brett Maher each got more work than they did in Denver. They combined for five total kicks — one field goal apiece and three combined extra points. Hajrullahu connected on two extra points and a 35-yard field goal. Maher hit two extra points and missed a field goal, but that attempt was just shy from 61 yards away. It feels a bit harsh to criticize the guy for a near-miss from the logo. 

It is interesting that McCarthy opted for a two-point conversion after a second-quarter touchdown, denying an opportunity at another kick in the process. Though that also feels like nitpicking.  

One more note: It’s interesting to think about how kickoffs will affect this battle. The two kickers combined for six kickoffs. Maher is widely thought to have the stronger leg, and he boomed all three of his attempts through the end zone. Two of Hajrullahu’s three kicks were returned, though it’s fair to note that one of those attempts was backed up by an illegal formation penalty. 

Yes, there is some irony to wrapping up a story about entertaining football by comparing kickoff attempts. But if the competition feels close, don’t rule that out as an important decision-maker. 

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports, providing insight and analysis on the NFL’s most visible franchise. Prior to joining FOX, David spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website, DallasCowboys.com. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State.


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