OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — Justin Durant stepped on the plane bound for California and was reminded right away why his second training camp with the Dallas Cowboys would be so much more important than the first.
Sean Lee was on the flight, even though he’ll miss the season at middle linebacker after tearing a knee ligament in the first practice of the offseason.
Durant is most likely to start in Lee’s place a year after the Cowboys signed him more for depth at linebacker than anything else.
“I was surprised when I saw him on the plane,” Durant said. “I just couldn’t believe it, how much he has invested into this team and the extra help that he’s doing. I told him that I’m just thankful for him for being here for helping me the best way that he can.”
Going into his eighth season, Durant isn’t new to starting or playing in the middle. If he ends up with the job, though, the task is daunting.
The Cowboys had the worst defense in the league a year ago. They are now without Lee and their two best pass rushers after franchise sacks leader DeMarcus Ware was released and Jason Hatcher left for Washington in free agency.
“Honestly, I don’t pay that any attention,” said Durant, who has started 74 of 89 career games, with previous stops in Jacksonville and Detroit. “Just sit back and watch and we’ll just have to show people. We can talk all day. But as far as what we’re going to do, you have to see it on the field.”
Durant came to camp knowing there was more competition for the job because the Cowboys added former top 10 pick Rolando McClain after the offseason program ended.
Coaches haven’t wasted any time incorporating McClain, who flamed out at the end of three seasons in Oakland and quit twice in Baltimore before the Ravens traded him to the Cowboys. He was even getting first-team work before a sore hamstring kept him out of practice the past couple of days.
Durant knew the competition was coming.
“I thought it was going to be earlier, like as soon as Sean went down,” said Durant, who missed six games last year with hamstring and groin issues. “The more competition that we have, the better it’s going to bring out of each person.”
Lee has been a constant presence in meeting rooms since he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in May. The Cowboys decided they wanted to keep that going in California.
“If you look at Durant last year, I thought that when he was in, he made a lot of plays and was really effective,” Lee said. “Hopefully he can stay healthy. I think he can make a lot of plays for us. Obviously our room and our defense has a lot to prove.”
Durant was a starter alongside Lee and Bruce Carter the first two games last year before injuries started getting in the way. He made a late-season start in the middle while Lee was battling a neck problem before he had to join Lee on the sideline the final two games with a hamstring injury.
Even when he was healthy, he had to battle veteran Ernie Sims for playing time and came away from the season thinking he needed to get better. As much as he hated to see Lee go down, now he’s feeling rejuvenated.
“He had a real good summer,” linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said. “He came back in good shape. So he understands he’s played a long time, understands his body, understands space. We look for him to be real good and solid in there.”
But the competition with McClain is far from over, and second-year player DeVonte Holloman shouldn’t be forgotten.
“I just think you let things play out in camp,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “We have a ways to go yet. We have some competition, some real good competition in there. It’s going to heat up in there.”
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