Mike Hamlin gets chance as starter

OXNARD, Calif. – Mike Hamlin returned to practice as the temporary starter at strong safety.

Hamlin had been sidelined since suffering a concussion in the Aug. 12 preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. He was cleared to practice Monday and worked with the starting defense with Gerald Sensabaugh expected to miss three to four weeks with a subluxation of his left shoulder, putting his status for the season opener in question.

“It gives me a chance to showcase what I can do,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin, a fifth-round pick last year, hoped to challenge Alan Ball for the starting job at free safety. But Ball, who was considered a clear frontrunner entering training camp, has a firm grasp on that job.

Hamlin and secondary coach Dave Campo said the transition from free safety to strong safety shouldn’t be difficult. The positions are almost interchangeable in the Cowboys’ scheme, and the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Hamlin has the size to handle the more physical aspects of the strong safety job.

“He’s pretty physical,” Campo said. “I don’t think he would shy away from anything from that standpoint. I feel good about him there.”

The Cowboys like the playmaking potential of Hamlin, who set a Clemson record with 14 interceptions in college. That’s one reason they opted for him to replace Sensabaugh for at least the final two preseason games.

“He’s a smart guy,” Wade Phillips said. “We’ve seen good things from him. We hope he continues that. I think he will.”

Undrafted rookie Barry Church impressed coaches by stepping in when Sensabaugh was injured during the first quarter of Saturday’s preseason game. His 80-yard fumble return and five tackles reinforced the belief that Church has a nose for the ball.

Five-year veteran safety Pat Watkins also returned to practice Monday. He’d been sidelined by a knee injury since early in camp.

Watkins has 10 career starts, including one last season when Sensabaugh missed a game with a broken thumb. But Hamlin wasn’t available for that game due to a broken wrist he suffered during the preseason.

Hamlin has passed Watkins on the depth chart, further evidence that Watkins’ job security is in jeopardy.

Hamlin has the chance to plant a seed in the minds of the Cowboys’ brass that he can be a full-time starter in the near future. That could be as soon as next season, as Sensabaugh is playing on a one-year tender offer.