You have injuries along the offensive line, and it's preseason, so you throw your seventh-round draft pick in there to see what he's got because ... well, why not? Worst that happens, you try something else. Best that happens, you get pleasantly surprised. Dallas Cowboys offensive line coach Hudson Houck was pleasantly surprised by Bill Nagy when things started to go wrong.
"There are a lot of things you can't coach, and one of them is recovery," Houck told me after a recent Cowboys practice. "This guy can get into kind of an awkward position and still figure out a way to get the job done. And that's important, because you want to teach good technique, but not everything always goes according to plan on that field."
Things didn't go exactly according to Nagy's plan at Wisconsin. As a junior, he got into a moped accident and suffered serious injuries that cost him playing time and, ultimately, his spot in the Badgers' starting lineup. He started only a handful of games as a senior last year, and much of the action he did see was as an extra tight end near the goal line and in short-yardage situations. Once a top line prospect, he headed into the NFL draft not knowing what to expect.
"I went into the process understanding that, at first, it wasn't likely that I was going to get drafted, but that I could get an opportunity," Nagy said. "And then I performed fairly well at my pro day and some more opportunities started opening up."
The Cowboys took him at the back end of the seventh round, with the third-to-last pick in the entire draft. He was three picks away from spending the locked-out summer wondering where he'd end up. Instead, he knew he'd be a Cowboy. What he didn't know was that he'd be the Cowboys' starting left guard for last week's preseason game and, it now appears, their next one as well. With starting center Andre Gurode and projected starting left guard Montrae Holland out with injuries, the interior of the Dallas offensive line has offered opportunities for Nagy and fourth-round pick David Arkin to show what they can do. Houck said the Cowboys like Arkin a lot, but that Nagy looks more ready to step in and play right away if need be.
"We knew he could run and we knew he competed, but there's stuff about a player you can't know until you get him into your camp," Houck said. "He's a real smart player, got a lot of savvy and knows how to play the game. He played in a real tough conference against some real serious competition, and I think that shows up. He's got a lot of high-level experience, even though he may not have had an opportunity play as much in college as some others."
Wisconsin isn't the easiest place in the world for an offensive lineman to get comfortable. Nagy said that, when you get hurt and miss time there, you have real concern about losing your spot.
"To get on the field at Wisconsin is an achievement," Nagy said. "At Wisconsin, there's always somebody coming up behind you and there's always a lot of talent. Every day was competition there, and that's helped me because, every day, that's what it is here."
The Cowboys have used Nagy at guard and at center this offseason. (Houck said it's a testament to Nagy's relative readiness that they've worked him at center and haven't done so with Arkin.) They still expect Gurode to be the starting center and to be back soon, so there's a chance Phil Costa, who's been filling in at center, could land at that left guard spot. But if Holland doesn't hurry back (and Houck didn't seem to think he was all that close), that spot is up for grabs. And it just might be the Cowboys' late seventh-round pick who grabs it.
"I feel good about him," Houck said. "He's been very impressive."