Hitchens in the mix at middle linebacker

IRVING, Texas -- After spending all of training camp at weakside linebacker, rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens finds himself competing for the starting job in the middle.

Hitchens has played solely middle linebacker during practice this week and has been getting some work with the starters. He’s in the mix with Rolando McClain and Justin Durant to be the Cowboys’ Week 1 starter.

“Yesterday he had a really good day at practice,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “He stepped up. He ran around. He struck people. He was physical. He looked the guy we drafted. He looked damn good.”

The Cowboys drafted the 6-foot, 235-pound Hitchens, who played weakside linebacker at Iowa, with the idea of grooming him as Sean Lee’s backup at middle linebacker. Those plans went out the window when Lee suffered a season-ending knee injury on the first day of organized team activities in May.

After acquiring McClain, the Cowboys decided to have Hitchens focus on the weakside spot during camp, but they always stressed to him the importance of position flexibility. He made a point to study all the calls a middle linebacker must make before each snap, but that communication is still the toughest part of his transition.

“Setting the front when they’re motioning and getting everybody lined up,” Hitchens said. “Everybody looks for me to for the call, and in college our middle linebacker made all those calls. That was the biggest thing for me. I’m getting it down now, so I should be all right.”

Hitchens has a heck of a tutor. He spends “as much time as I can” with Lee, who is trying to get the rookie up to speed as quickly as possible in the mental details of playing middle linebacker in this scheme.

“In meetings during camp, he sat right behind me,” Hitchens said. “He was always in my ear. I’m looking this way and I just hear him in the back of my head talking to me. He just gives me a little knowledge here and there.”

Hitchens knows he still has a lot to learn. He figures the more reps he gets, the faster he can play and the less he’ll have to think on the field.

Hitchens also understands that his time in the middle could be temporary.

“I’m just trying to get better every day,” Hitchens said. “That’s all I can focus on. Whatever happens, happens. That’s the coaches’ decision. That’s what they get paid for. I’m just here trying to get better and then play the role I can.”