Pa David Helman
FOX Sports Dallas Cowboys writer
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — It’s nice to be reminded that it can be fun.
After last week’s boring, torturous game in Denver, that’s exactly what Saturday night’s 32-18 win at SoFi Stadium was. Cowboys. It was fun as hell.
No, this was no ordinary football season. Both Chargers and the Cowboys fielded most of their starters in what amounted to an audition for every youth team.
But here’s the thing. Even with backups on the field, it’s possible to play some entertaining football and showcase young talent in the process.
Let’s hope that trend continues in the third and final exhibition game. In the meantime, let’s take a look at what stood out against the Chargers.
It’s usually dangerous to assume too much from a preseason showing, but in this case we can err on the side of caution. KaVontae Turpin made that team on Saturday night.
If we’re being honest, the man’s quick return may have already been a lock for the roster. But it’s pointless to discuss that after Turpin won the show with two touchdown returns against the Chargers. The first was a great example of his straight-line speed as he rode his blocks through the mess of a punting team, returning 98 yards.
The second was even more impressive. Fielding a Los Angeles at his own 14-yard line late in the second quarter, Turpin showed fantastic vision and footwork to first elude a tackler, then tiptoe past the first three blocks before hitting the gas near his own 30-yard line.
When he reached the end zone eight seconds later, all questions about his future felt answered.
“Speed kills,” Turpin said. “I took advantage of our blockers and the way they blocked. I just felt like it was great for our special teams unit.”
This is the fun story of one of the latest additions to this list. Turpin signed with the Cowboys during the first week of training camp, fresh off his USFL season as the league’s MVP. It didn’t give him much time to make a good impression, but having game-breaking speed could do wonders in that regard.
“Obviously, in my opinion, he was the best player I’ve seen in the USFL,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “I was impressed with him from day one.”
With C.D. Lamb as the top receiver, the Cowboys entered training camp without a clear running back. With a full week left in the preseason, it looks like they’ve found him.
A timely reminder
Mostly written off earlier this year, Tristan Hill refuses to make things easy for anyone.
It was seen as a pivotal summer for Hill, a young quarterback who was drafted No. 58 overall in 2019. Injuries have prevented Hill from making the kind 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 spot in the list.
Saturday night was the biggest evidence that Hill is trying to do the former. After doing the bulk of the work in the first half, he finished with three tackles and a sack. But it shouldn’t be called a sack, because Hill was able to lean past his defender into the pocket, pull the ball out of Easton Stick hands and fall on him so the Cowboys end up in the Chargers red zone.
“I just wish I would have picked it up and run it for a touchdown,” Hill said.
It was the best game of the last month for a guy who has shown himself many times during training camp. And he didn’t just make a splash, he had an offensive holding call that negated a 17-yard gain.
“It’s nice to see it come to fruition — knowing it’s going to work and then believing it,” Hill said.
In this case, it seems premature to declare Hill a roster lock. His skill set is not as unique as Turpin’s. But another strong performance underscores that it would be a mistake to write him off, which also shows how difficult it will be for this coaching staff to trim the defensive line.
Groin injury postponed Will GrierThe first game action as a Cowboy as a Cowboy was last week, but on Saturday, you finally got to see the second participant in the backup quarterback battle.
Grier practiced this week against the Chargers. And so far Cooper Rush started his second straight preseason game, he gave up the field to Grier in the second quarter, allowing the former third-round pick to pick up five possessions.
The results largely mimicked what Grier has shown in training camp up until this point. He had an average night, going 6-for-10 for 98 yards and a nine-yard scramble — nothing to set the world on fire.
But the refinements he made stand out. His first shot of the night was a short round Jake Ferguson, allowing the rookie tight end to loosen up and run for extra yards. After that he made the third and fifth throw Simi Fehokabeating a struggling defender to pick up 11 yards.
“When I cut it, I knew he didn’t have a chance to make it,” Grier said. “I’m not shy about cutting it, I’m always going to try to make a throw down the field. Throws in a tight window, I think it’s important in this league to get first downs and move the chains. I’m not afraid to make those throws.”
That’s the undeniable impression of watching Grier up to this point. Early in the fourth quarter, he shouldered the ball in the back Brandon Smith, trusting the sophomore to get open if he turns his body the right way. It worked flawlessly, and the 32 yards was the Cowboys’ longest gain of the night, setting up a field goal.
Good luck figuring out if that means anything. In last preseason’s quarterback race, Rush looked like an outsider before stealing the job from Garrett Gilbert at the 11th hour. What looks like a fierce competition can be anything but, depending on who you ask.
At least Grier is playing entertaining football and looking poised while doing it. This can pay dividends as the job auditions come to an end.
What a strange world we live in. It’s one thing that the Cowboys have a solid safety group, but even the backups look impressive.
Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson not so much as sniffed the field at SoFi Stadium, which gave us a wide view Israel Mukuamu and Marches bell. And did they ever impress.
Mukuamu, who enjoyed a strong camp in his sophomore season, made an impact early. Stick tried a deep punt against a Cover 2 look on the fifth play for the Chargers. The ball was tipped slightly, allowing Mukuamu to easily reach the touchline and make an easy interception.
“Just playing with confidence right now,” Mukuamu said. “I really understand this scheme. I’m in it for the second year, so I understand how to call and put people in line.”
Interception is cool, but the last part is important. It’s clear from watching Mukuama that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is trying to develop the youngster into Kearse’s role in this defense.
Kearse made a name for himself last year as a defensive back in this scheme as a linebacker/safety hybrid, playing equally well as a box safety, coverage player and tackle tool against tight ends. Whether Mukuamu can do the same remains to be seen, but he clearly has the necessary skill set. 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 also deserves a mention. He doesn’t have the same length as Mukuamu, but the 6-2 hybrid player finished with five tackles.
Quinn is looking for length, versatility and a nose for the football. Mukuamu and Bello have all three and they showed it on Saturday.
Call it a wash.
Lyrim Khairulakh and Brett Maher each got more work than in Denver. They combined for five field goals and three extra points each. Hajrullahu kicked two extra points and a 35-yard field goal. Maher kicked two extra points and missed a field goal, but that attempt was just shy of 61 yards. It seems a bit harsh to criticize the guy for his near miss with the logo.
Interestingly, McCarthy opted for the two-point conversion after the second-quarter touchdown, denying himself another touchdown in the process. Although it also feels like a nitpick.
On another note, it’s interesting to think about how the opening punches will affect this fight. The two kickers combined for six hits. Maher is believed to have the stronger leg and punched all three of his attempts through the end zone. Two of Hajrullah’s three kicks were saved, although it’s worth noting that one of those attempts was backed up by an offside penalty.
Yes, there is some irony in ending a story about an entertaining football with a comparison of kickoff attempts. But if the competition seems close, don’t rule it out as an important decision-maker.
David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports, providing insight and analysis on the NFL’s most storied 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 the production of Doc Prescott: Family Reunion, about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State.
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