Nick Hayden emerges as a presence

IRVING, Texas -- On Wednesday, reporters surrounded Dallas Cowboys defensive end George Selvie as if he had just returned from Mars or something.

There were all sorts of questions about his becoming the full-time starter with Anthony Spencer out for the season because of knee surgery.

A few lockers down stood defensive tackle Nick Hayden talking to a smaller group about his role in the Cowboys' 4-3 defense. For the attention Selvie has received the first three weeks of the season, Hayden has also burst onto the scene.

With Jay Ratliff on the PUP still recovering from groin injuries, Hayden has stepped in and played well.

"When I came in, I just wanted to work my butt off," Hayden said. "I had no expectations. I knew we had a great D-line. I just kept working each game and my opportunity finally came, and [I'm] starting right now."

The Cowboys hope Ratliff will return at some point this season, but Hayden has proved he's more than capable of playing this position. How long he can continue to play at this level is uncertain, but he has a comfort level in this scheme.

He played it for 44 games at Wisconsin, where he had 132 tackles and 10 sacks. He was a sixth-round draft pick by Carolina in 2008 and spent the bulk of the season on the practice squad. He got limited playing time with the Panthers before starting 10 games in 2010. He never had more than one sack in a season during three years in Carolina. He was cut by the Panthers prior to training camp in 2011, and Cincinnati signed him in December 2011.

But in 2012, he suffered a high-ankle sprain in the Bengals' training camp and was waived injured. Hayden waited for another team to sign him last year but none did, so he just kept working out until the Cowboys signed him last February.

"It's definitely tough to sit out. You don't know when this game is going to end," he said. "I know I'm good enough to play in this league. I don't know for how long, but as long as I keep going as I am right now, just keep getting better each week, and good things to come."

One of the things Hayden has done to maintain his status in the starting lineup is hustle. Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli awards hustle points for players who chase after ball carriers. The thinking is that the more defenders who are going to the ball, the greater the chance of a forced fumble.

Last week against St. Louis, Hayden, after rushing the quarterback, turned around and ran after speedy wide receiver Tavon Austin, a man with 4.3 speed.

"He’s a good, solid nose tackle who plays hard every snap," coach Jason Garrett said of Hayden. "He knows what he’s doing and he continues to get better, too."