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IRVING (AP) – Before he became the Dallas linebacker caught up in the critical pass interference penalty that wasn’t in a wild-card win over Detroit, Anthony Hitchens was a steadily improving rookie playing a much bigger role than the Cowboys anticipated.
Nothing about that description has changed in his mind now that millions more people know who he is.
“I’m just a guy who is trying to do his job,” Hitchens said. “I don’t make calls. All I can do is get to the ball and do my job. That’s all I can say.”
Hitchens sprinted into the spotlight when he was trying to run down Brandon Pettigrew and made contact with the Lions tight end just before Matthew Stafford’s pass hit Hitchens in the back and he eased up before rolling over Pettigrew as both players fell.
One official threw a flag, and referee Pete Morelli announced the penalty before another official overruled the call, saying there wasn’t enough contact for interference. A day later, the NFL said there wasn’t any interference, but that Hitchens should have been called for holding.
People are still talking about it, even with the Cowboys (13-4) well on their way to preparations for Sunday’s division-round game at Green Bay (12-4).
“I think I did a pretty good job of closing the distance and at least trying to get my head turned around,” Hitchens said. “You can always improve. Just focus on more of the negatives than the positives at that time.”
The Cowboys were criticized for taking Hitchens in the fourth round out of Iowa when he projected as a later-round selection. They took him as insurance for oft-injured Sean Lee, who tore a knee ligament on the first day of offseason workouts less than a month later.
It’s been a whirlwind since for Hitchens, who has started at all three linebacker spots and is third on the team in tackles with 100. The leader is safety Barry Church, ahead of linebacker Rolando McClain, who was acquired in a trade just before training camp with the Cowboys hoping he could take Lee’s starting spot.
McClain has had trouble staying healthy, and Justin Durant was lost to a torn arm muscle halfway through the season. Hitchens made it through all 16 games, then played through a sprained ankle against the Lions after missing practice all week. He was out again Wednesday.
“We planned to have him in a role where he wasn’t going to have to play that much,” coach Jason Garrett said of the wild-card game. “Before you know it, Rolando can’t play and now he’s out there probably playing double the snaps we had planned to have him play.”
It’s been that way since Lee’s knee gave out in a noncontract drill, and the significance of the injury wasn’t lost on Hitchens.
“That I needed to grow up fast, like right then and there,” Hitchens said of what he was thinking at the time. “I didn’t know if I was going to be in there right then or some other time down the road. I just knew I had to speed up my learning process real soon.”
Bruce Carter, who missed three games with a thigh injury and had to be replaced by Hitchens, said the rookie succeeded.
“Normally rookies come in, and they have the rookie wall, and the season’s gone on,” Carter said. “I don’t see him as a rookie, to be quite honest. He’s one of us.”
The Cowboys liked Hitchens during the draft because of his versatility, but even they didn’t think they would be moving him around as much as they have. And they didn’t think he would be making the calls on defense, which he has occasionally.
“I do think he has grown up quickly,” Garrett said. “Sometimes that happens. When there is an opportunity that is there and there are a lot of people who are trying to fill a void, typically the progression and development happens more quickly and they get thrust into it.”
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