OXNARD, Calif. – J.J. Wilcox didn't hesitate when the Dallas Cowboys rookie was asked if he knew who Bill Bates was.
"Special teams hero," said Wilcox. "And one of the hardest hitters back in the '90s when the Cowboys were rolling."
Wilcox just forgot to mention why Bates' name was relevant — because the longtime Dallas safety was one of the most notorious practice players around thanks to his overzealous tackling.
Dallas coach Jason Garrett has diagnosed the rookie from Georgia Southern with "Bill Bates syndrome," remembering how his former teammate would apologize for putting players on the ground in non-tackling situations and then "pick them up and do it the next play."
It's a tricky balance for coaches, particularly with a small school player who has just a year of college experience at safety and is trying to leave an impression.
"Wilcox tackles way too much in practice," Garrett says. "And you kind of coach both sides of it: 'Hey, keep doing that, but don't do that.' You know what I'm saying?"
Wilcox says he isn't overcompensating because he comes from the Football Championship Subdivision, a level below the top tier of college football. He's not anxious and eager over the fact that he started twice as many games on offense (26) as he did at safety (13) with Georgia Southern.
He's just playing — and practicing — the way he was taught by coaches and his father, James Wilcox Sr., who starred at the same high school in Cairo, Ga., three decades earlier.
"I don't understand half-percent, 90 percent," said Wilcox, a third-round pick by the Cowboys. "All I know is 100 percent. That's the way I was taught. That's the way I play the game."
But he doesn't want the "dumb player" label, either. Garrett jumped on him for too much tackling the first practice of camp.
"After that, that's all it took," Wilcox said.
It will take injuries at safety for Wilcox to become a starter, but he's getting solid work as a backup in training camp. And there's little question he'll have a chance to be a special teams ace along the lines of Bates, who played 15 seasons and led the team in special teams tackles three of the first six years the stat was kept.
"He's working his butt off," secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. "You like the way he runs to the ball. You like the physicalness that you feel. But we've still got a long way to go."
Wilcox impressed the Cowboys enough, starting at the Senior Bowl, to be the first defensive player they drafted — the fourth overall for Dallas with the 80th pick.
"The coaching staff just saw something in me that they liked," he said. "That's all it takes is one team. I just want to come out here and prove them right that they got the right pick."
He was the first of two small-school defensive backs taken by Dallas. Cornerback B.W. Webb of William & Mary went in the fourth round.
"We both come out here trying to improve each other every day," Wilcox said. "We're roommates. We've been around each other all the time. It's great having him in the same predicament I am trying to prove myself."
Wilcox doesn't mind drawing Garrett's ire for the extracurricular tackling. At least he's getting attention.
"I'd rather him to tell me to slow down than to speed up," Wilcox said.
And at least he's getting compared to a player who stuck around for 15 years.
NOTES: DE Anthony Spencer (knee) and DL Tyrone Crawford (torn Achilles tendon) had surgery Thursday in the Dallas area. Spencer is returning to California but isn't likely to practice again before the team breaks camp. Crawford is out for the year. ... DL Ben Bass, who has been getting attention because of the injuries in front of him, left Friday's practice early with an ankle injury. ... OL Nate Livings passed the conditioning test and practiced for the first time Friday.
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