Darren Woodson likes what he sees from Barry Church

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Darren Woodson believes in Barry Church.

The Cowboys have been hampered by spotty safety play since a back injury forced Woodson, a five-time Pro Bowler and the franchise’s all-time leading tackler, to retire before the 2004 season. Woodson sees signs that Church, a third-year undrafted player who seized the starting role during training camp, can be a long-term solution.

“He’s been pigeonholed as that box safety,” Woodson said after watching Thursday’s practice at Cowboys Stadium. “Now, it seems like he’s slimmed down a little bit. He looks a lot more athletic and he knows where he’s supposed to be on the football field. If you know where you’re supposed to be on the football field, you can make a lot of plays even without the athleticism. That’s what I’m seeing from him now.

“I think he’s a different player than what we’re used to from last year. That’s building from knowing where he’s supposed to be and that confidence that he has.”

Woodson’s advice to Church: Outwork everyone during the week. Spend a ton of free time watching film. Maintain confidence, but be critical of yourself and embrace criticism from the coaches.

As a guy who played linebacker at Arizona State, Woodson relates to the transition Church is making from being a box safety to an all-purpose player at the position. The knock on Church is that he has subpar speed, but Woodson said that weakness can be masked by studying.

“I remember coming into the league and the biggest thing that held me back was the lack of confidence, because I was transitioning from one position to another,” said Woodson, an ESPN analyst who should be at the top of the list of Ring of Honor candidates. “I didn’t know the system that well. But once I started making plays, my confidence kept on building and I continued to study. I learned from the best as far as my study habits, and I became a better football player.

“I think he can go through the same situation.”