FRISCO, Texas — When rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci joined the Dallas Cowboys for training camp in August, he figured there was no chance he’d see action with starter Dak Prescott and veteran backup Andy Dalton on the roster ahead of him.
But that was before Prescott was lost for the season with a fractured ankle and Dalton was knocked out with a head injury two weeks later.
And with Dalton still in concussion protocol and yet to participate in practice, DiNucci is preparing to start Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles (2-4-1) in a game that could put the floundering Cowboys (2-5) back in first place in the NFC East.
The unabashed native Pennsylvanian who hails from the suburbs north of Pittsburgh calls it the “opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Hey, this is 2020. What else do you expect?” DiNucci said. “Here we are. Week 8 of my rookie year I’ve got a chance to go out there on Sunday Night Football and do what I love to do. I couldn’t be happier or more excited.
“This is everyone’s childhood dream, right? The chance to be the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. What more could you want?”
DiNucci will have a number of family and friends who’ll make the four-hour trip across the state to attend the game.
What he could really use, however, would be a healthy and experienced offensive line in front of him to protect against the Eagles’ dominating and aggressive defensive front.
But he does have the support of his teammates and love from Prescott.
“Actually saw him yesterday before we were going out to practice,” DiNucci said. “Kind of just walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, this isn’t what you said my rookie year was going to be like.’ He laughed and gave me a hug and just said, ‘We’ve talked about this. Go out there and do you. Take completions. Trust the guys around you. You’ll be great. Don’t overthink it. Football’s football.’
“Not going to try to make it any more than it is. Going to have fun with it, bring a lot of energy, bring a lot of confidence and let my play speak for itself.”
DiNucci is more athletic than Dalton. He impressed Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy when he arrived when he clocked 21 miles per hour in some running drills.
So the Cowboys will employ packages to take advantage of his athleticism to get away from the Philadelphia rush.
But his main focus will be not turn the ball over, get the ball to his playmakers and keep the chains moving.
“I think the biggest thing he told me is just, ‘Hey, do you. Protect the ball. As long as we have the ball at the end of every play, as long as every drive ends in a kick, whether it’s a field goal, an extra point, a punt that’s a plus for the offense,” DiNucci said on advice from McCarthy. “I’m going to do what I’m coached to do, take completions, play inside myself and let the rest take care of itself.”
He has already impressed his teammates with his swag and confidence in practice.
Asked to describe DiNucci, linebacker Jaylon Smith didn’t blink: “Slinger. Full of confidence. And that’s what I love: You see a fire in his eyes. So I’m just looking forward to going back to back with my brother. We’re going to make it happen.”
Receiver Michael Gallup has been equally impressed. “Yeah, he’s got a little bit (of swagger). He comes in the huddle, he’s got that deep voice. DiNucci is DiNucci, he’s a good kid to be around.”
“He’s been slinging that thing,” Gallup added. “He’s been slinging that thing. He’s been good. He comes up after every period that we got and he’s like, ‘My job is actually pretty easy, I’ve just got to get you three the ball and let y’all go to work. It’s not that hard.’ So it’s been good.”
DiNucci has simply been DiNucci.
While his experience is minimal, the confidence has always been there dating back to high school where he was the Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. He spent three seasons at Pittsburgh before transferring to James Madison where he led the Dukes to the FCS championship game in 2019.
“I’m just being me. Being a quarterback, you’ve got to have a little something to you,” DiNucci said. “You’ve got to have confidence. I’ve just got to go in there and be the same guy that I’ve always been. If I sound confident, these guys are going to know they can trust me when I’m out there. We’re looking forward to it.”
Ironically, it was during the week of FCS game when DiNucci had a chance meeting with McCarthy, who was staying at the same hotel in a Frisco hotel after being hired by the Cowboys.
McCarthy is from Pittsburgh and McCarthy’s brother was DiNucci’s eighth grade basketball coach.
The two had a five-minute conversation about their common bonds and regional ties.
Roughly four months later, when the Cowboys surprisingly took DiNucci in the seventh round of the draft, DiNucci would say, “It’s just crazy to see this thing full-circle.”
No, it’s 2020. The real crazy part comes Sunday.
DiNucci will be ready.
©2020 Fort Worth Star-Telegram