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Ahead of schedule: Dak Prescott exceeding all expectations in stellar start to NFL career

The first five weeks of quarterback Dak Prescott's pro career suggest he's the most prepared rookie passer in the NFL and a perfect fit for a franchise hoping to make a transition. The Cowboys just never thought he'd be ready this fast. There are worse problems to have.

This story appears in the Oct. 17, 2016 edition of Sports Illustrated.Subscribe to the magazine here.

On the Thursdaybefore his third NFL start, an eventual 31–17 devastation of the Bears, Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott parked his Escalade in his driveway and entered his three-story, three-bedroom suburban condominium. After an early-bird 5:30 p.m. dinner he faced the type of dilemma familiar to burgeoning NFL stars: Kanye West was playing in downtown Dallas at the American Airlines Center, and one of the few companies Prescott endorses had sent him some sweet seats in Section 105, just left of stage.

Prescott did the math aloud: Kanye will go on after 9. The show will last a few hours, which means getting home after midnight. The decision was clear. He ­offered the tickets to his childhood friend, Cobi Griffin, who declined. So Dak kicked back in a recliner, Cobi sprawled on the couch and the two spent the night flipping between a Texans–Patriots game and Clemson–Georgia Tech. “I wanted to go a little bit,” Prescott said of the concert. “But I just think about the perception of it all. And I love my sleep.”

The 23-year-old Prescott worries like this because he treasures his reality so much. In six dizzying months he has zoomed from fourth-round pick to serendipitous starter to one of the league’s top rookies, orchestrating the second-ranked offense for the 4–1 Cowboys. He has replaced injured starter Tony Romo and backup Kellen Moore with such uncanny composure that he set the rookie record for most passes without an interception. (He’s still at zero, after 155 attempts.) Along the way, his poise has drawn as much praise as his production: 247.8 yards per game, 69.0% completion rate, four passing TDs, three rushing. “It’s like he’s not even a rookie,” says receiver Cole Beasley. “It’s like he’s a five-year vet.”

Dak Prescott is on a roll. Why do the Cowboys want to mess with it?

So how did the eighth quarterback drafted in April—eighth!—develop so quickly that Dallas already feels good about his succeeding Romo? How has the 135th pick outplayed every other QB in his class, including even the Eagles’ Carson Wentz (No. 2)? The answers are scattered throughout Prescott’s condo.

Start with those Kanye tickets—they lie unused on the table. Now head out on the roof deck, from which you can see the Cowboys’ practice facility a couple of miles to the south. Some teammates roll their eyes at the idea of living in Frisco, a strip-malled McSuburb; trendy Uptown is only 30 miles away. But Prescott loves waking up at 6 a.m. and being at work, in the hot tub, by 6:15. “If I don’t hit the traffic light,” he says, “I can be there in two minutes.”

Then there are the walls. While most rookies begin and end their home decorating by purchasing a leather couch and mounting a flat screen, Prescott has framed photos of himself and two of his brothers. He has hung a decorative turtle over the tub and his kitchen features a rotating spice rack that suggests a cut of lumber. In the bathroom next to his man cave hang four inspirational signs, seemingly swiped from a sorority house, that say things like dream a little bigger and go your own way. “Everybody who comes over is like, It looks like you’ve lived here way longer than you have,” he says, flashing a smile of pride. “I’m one of those people—when I start something, I want to have it done within a week.”

Prescott moved into his condo in late June and enlisted his aunt Paige Gilbeaux in a decorating two-minute drill. “I lost 10 pounds helping him,” she jokes. “He worked me to death.” Gilbeaux is a local representative for SportStar Relocation in Houston, and her clients typically give her free rein. Dak was the opposite: After practice he would push the shopping cart through HomeGoods, making sure every purchase had meaning.

Prescott insisted on a prominent clock (the oversized decoration at the top of the first-story staircase), as if he knew his time was coming. The dominant piece in the garage is a framed oversized photo of himself and his late mother, Peggy, who died of colon cancer in 2013. And the last thing Dak sees when he leaves his bedroom is a cross inscribed have faith. 

In the end Prescott and his aunt finished a three-month decorating job in nearly two weeks, an early sign that he operates ahead of schedule.

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A few blocks from home Dak Prescott enters Mattito’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant with big screens suspended from the ceiling, and slides into a gaudily patterned booth. He has ordered chips and queso and a water with lemon when a waiter walks by, does a double take and asks, “What’s up, Zeke?” Prescott cracks up. The poor guy has confused him for fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the league in rushing (and by a large margin)—hardly the first time someone has struggled to identify Prescott.

This off-season the Dallas brass prioritized drafting an heir to the 36-year-old (and perpetually injured) Romo, a departure for a franchise that had picked just two QBs—Quincy Carter in 2001 and Stephen McGee in ’09—since 1991. The Cowboys flew in seven potential rookie passers, using nearly a quarter of their 30 allotted predraft visits. Jared Goff, Wentz, Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, Jacoby Brissett, Connor Cook and Prescott all came to town. 

After Goff and Wentz were off the draft board Dallas chose Elliott fourth, then furiously tried to trade up for Lynch. When the Broncos snagged the Memphis QB with the 26th choice, owner Jerry Jones said he regretted not making the move. The Cowboys moved on to Cook, but Oakland made a deal to move one slot ahead of them, grabbing him at No. 100. Raiders owner Mark Davis would later josh Jones about how their selection set up Dallas to ultimately draft Prescott, whom they took with a compensatory pick. “Thank God,” Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones says of the confluence of events. 

At Mississippi State, Prescott had been named All-SEC; he was a nominee for the Heisman, Maxwell and Davey O’Brien awards; he set single-season school records for total offense, passing yards, passing TDs. He slipped in the draft partly because he had played in a spread offense and because of a DUI ­arrest last March. (He was later found not guilty of the charges.) Dallas’s quarterbacks coach, Wade Wilson, had few questions about the QB’s character, having visited Prescott in Starkville. He left their blue-plate lunch at Restaurant Tyler with a bill too small to expense and a strong impression. “He has an aura and confidence about him,” Wilson says.

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When the 6' 2", 226-pound Prescott made his predraft visit to Dallas, coach Jason Garrett and coordinator Scott Linehan put him through the wringer, harassing him as he diagrammed plays. But little rattled Prescott. “I felt like Dak was enjoying it,” says Linehan, “because it was football.” In the end the Cowboys say they identified Prescott as having the highest football IQ of the seven visiting passers.

At camp he learned the playbook faster than any rookie Wilson has seen in his 10 seasons with Dallas. He eliminated the staggered stance he’d used in the Bulldogs’ shotgun offense, he shortened his stride, and he spent his nights focusing on the transition from a no-huddle offense to one that gathers after almost every play. Prescott’s training camp roommate, rookie tight end Rico Gathers, remembers the QB reading aloud from his practice script in bed, stressing the formation, motion and protection so he could better enunciate them in the huddle. “When he has an area he has to work on,” Garrett says, “he’s very diligent in getting that right.”

Prescott’s first real opportunity to showcase his new game came on Aug. 2, after Moore broke his right fibula in practice. Prescott cringes when he recalls his initial work with the second unit. “The first play I dropped the snap,” he says. “In my head I was like, Did you really just do that?” 

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