David Irving standing out for right reasons for Cowboys

"He really has a lot of potential," Jason Garrett said of David Irving. "He's a big strong athletic guy, has great quickness and explosiveness, great instincts and feel for the game." AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

FRISCO, Texas -- David Irving can't hide.

At 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, he stands out among the rest of his Dallas Cowboys teammates. Some of it is his own doing.

He has a bleached stripe of hair. He has a nipple ring, which he lost in training camp this summer during one practice. After the Cowboys beat the Washington Redskins two weeks ago, he walked out of FedEx Field with a fox (scarf) named Chester wrapped around his neck to keep him warm.

He draws attention each week for raising a fist at the end of the national anthem, which is something he has done in the five games he has played this season. He is careful not to cross the line Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett have set in not disrespecting the anthem and American flag.

Irving never thought he would receive this kind of attention, on or off the field.

"I look back all the time," Irving said. "It's crazy. All the time. I never thought I'd be in the NFL, regardless, once I left Iowa State. It's been crazy, man. It's changed my life."

Irving was kicked out of Iowa State before his senior season after he was charged with disorderly conduct, fifth-degree theft and criminal mischief in the second degree. He was caught on camera carrying a stop sign.

He was not invited to the combine. He had his pro day at his high school in San Jacinto, California. Only one team called him after the draft. The Kansas City Chiefs signed him as an undrafted free agent, liking what they saw more than what they knew.

Irving was among their final cuts but signed to the practice squad. The Cowboys signed him off the Kansas City practice squad on Sept. 29, 2015.

"I had literally just saved enough money to get furniture moved into my apartment," Irving said. "The next day I had to leave. Broke the lease, left the furniture. Just had to go. It was a crazy experience. Came here, I think it was a Tuesday, went into meetings not really knowing anybody, not knowing what they expected out of me, and the next day we're in full pads. It's worked out."

One day early in the 2015 season, a member of the Cowboys' scouting department walked into Rod Marinelli's office and told him he had forwarded him a tape of Irving to watch.

Marinelli knew nothing about Irving. He never saw him in the draft preparation that spring. He never saw his tape over the summer after Irving joined the Chiefs.

"Hey, here's this big, tall guy," Marinelli remembered being told. "This is where he's from. He can bend."

Marinelli watched some of the tape of Irving from the preseason games that summer and was impressed.

"You look at that and the bend and stuff, man, you have to take a look at that," Marinelli said.

Five days after joining the Cowboys, he was chasing New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees as a backup. He finished with two tackles without really knowing much of the Cowboys' defense or some teammates' names.

Irving played in 12 games in 2015 and had a half sack. He played in 15 games last season with four sacks, but in one game he flashed the potential Marinelli saw on tape. Against the Green Bay Packers, he forced three fumbles and recovered one, sacked Aaron Rodgers, knocked down a pass and had a tackle for loss in only 19 snaps. He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

So far this season, he has six sacks, which are second on the team. The coaches have credited him with eight tackles, three tackles for loss, three pass deflections and a forced fumble. All of that has come in five games because he was suspended the first four games for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.

If not for DeMarcus Lawrence's stellar play (11.5 sacks), Irving would get more notice.

"I feel like I'm kind of making up for lost time," Irving said, "but then I think about what could I have been doing with four more games."

Cowboys history has been littered with off-the-grid success stories. Current players like Cole Beasley, Dan Bailey and Jeff Heath have become significant contributors after being undrafted free agents. Last Saturday, the Cowboys signed defensive tackle Daniel Ross off the Chiefs' practice squad and an immediate connection was made to Irving.

But Irving's path to his current success is not the norm.

"He really has a lot of potential," Garrett said of Irving. "He's a big, strong, athletic guy, has great quickness and explosiveness, great instincts and feel for the game. He just needs to play, and he's in a great environment to learn.

"Rod Marinelli does an unbelievable job. Leon Lett does an unbelievable job with those guys. And then he's had some other veteran players he's around every day who can show him how to go about it -- how to go about it in the meeting room, during the walk-through and on the practice field. I think he's benefited from all that. He's a young player who's still growing."

Irving is just 24. He is set to be a restricted free agent when the season ends. Given how he has played, the Cowboys probably will have to put the first-round tender on him if they don't look to sign him to a multiyear deal before that.

"I know the better I play the more secure I feel," Irving said. "I feel at home."