Why Cowboys Rookie QB DiNucci Gets First-Team Snaps
FRISCO - Ben DiNucci was a seventh-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and, with the season-ending injury to Dak Prescott, he is now one heartbeat — or one Andy Dalton injury away — from taking snaps as the primary quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.
Indeed, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy says this week is in a sense as big and different for DiNucci as a No. 2 as it is for Dalton as a No. 1.
“Frankly, I’m not as concerned about Andy Dalton’s preparation as much as I’m focused on Ben DiNucci’s,'' McCarthy said. "We have to make sure that the No. 2, that’s where the biggest preparation and change is going on.''
McCarthy went on to say that now, DiNucci will get more snaps than ever ... and just as Dalton did behind Dak, is also taking some first-team snaps at The Star.
So, in this week’s Rookie Report, we’ll take a dive into DiNucci’s college film. Thanks to this unusual offseason, there really is no pro film on DiNucci at the moment, so it’s hard to gauge how much progress he’s made since he joined the Cowboys.
But what does his college tape show us? Let’s dig in.
At 34 seconds of the above tape, we see that Pitt gave DiNucci some chance to be creative. DiNucci is in the shotgun, with two receivers to his right, a back set in front and to his right and a receiver in motion from his right. DiNucci has plenty of options and the defense has plenty to worry about. What ends up happening is DiNucci sells a nice run fake to the receiver in motion. The running back lingers as if he’s looking for someone to block but instead turns around after DiNucci’s fake and takes a shovel pass. The scheme and DiNucci’s fake creates a wide alley for him to take the shovel pass and turn it into a first down and more.
The next play, at 53 seconds, shows DiNucci in a pistol run-pass option formation we’re all familiar with. DiNucci has two receivers to his left, one to his right, a tight end offset on the left edge and a running back behind him. The play fake — or the handoff — is key. DiNucci makes this work with a deep play fake to the running back. It’s a fake so good that when you stop the tape a second later it’s not clear that DiNucci has the football and the outside linebacker, who is committed to the ball carrier per his assignment, is taking dead aim for the back. DiNucci even fakes the inside corner, who overruns DiNucci as he takes it into the end zone. It’s similar to what we’ve Prescott do on short touchdown runs during his time in Dallas.
But DiNucci must be more than a shovel passer or a RPO king in this offense. With the weapons the Cowboys have on the perimeter, he’s going to have to get the ball downfield if called upon. Fast-forward to 1:25 and he’s in a shotgun set with backs to either side, and two receivers to his left.
This is a good example of DiNucci’s pocket presence and ability to get the ball downfield accurately. As the pass rush slides past him on either side, DiNucci senses a chance to step up in the pocket and get mobile while keeping his eyes upfield. In doing so, he’s able to hit a receiver in stride down the middle of the field for a touchdown.
And if you’re wondering if he has the arm strength to hit Michael Gallup — who runs as many go routes than any wide receiver in the NFL — then don’t worry. Fast-forward to 1:37 and you’ll see DiNucci drop back out of the shotgun and throw from the 40-yard line for a touchdown to a receiver running a route remarkably similar to the ones that Gallup runs. And it’s a back-shoulder fade no less.
Finally, you need some creativity on the spot, and DiNucci showed that at the 2:15 mark. He tripped coming out from under center, rolled right, found himself in trouble and threw the ball to the other side of the field to an offensive lineman, no less, who took it for a touchdown (which was later overturned). Prescott did something creatively similar a few weeks ago.
Watch the whole tape — and its equal parts Pitt and James Madison — you’ll see that both offense deployed him in similar ways. There was plenty of shotgun formations, RPO sets and planned runs for DiNucci. The short swing passes and medium routes across the middle are his bread-and-butter, based on this tape. He can get the ball downfield with accuracy, has good mobility, both planned and on the spot, and doesn’t seem to show happy feet when pressure comes his way. Overall, you can see many of the traits that led the Cowboys to take him in the seventh round. Based on how the Cowboys use Prescott, DiNucci can plug in without a ton of adjustment.
What the Cowboys lose, in the event that Dalton gets hurt, is the maturity of play that both Prescott and Dalton bring to the table. The Cowboys can script plays for DiNucci. They can put him in formations in which DiNucci feels comfortable. The Cowboys can lean heavily on running back Ezekiel Elliott as a security blanket. And, should DiNucci have to enter the game, especially that first game, in a season with no preseason and no way for defensive coordinators to gauge tendencies, DiNucci would likely do quite well.
It’s the next game, and the game after that, and the game after that, which could prove problematic for any young quarterback. Tape means more time for defensive coordinators to study you and scheme against you. And in the event DiNucci has to take the job long-term, that’s what they’ll do. Then it will be up to DiNucci and the offensive staff of the Cowboys to adjust to their adjustments.
That’s the mark between good and great quarterbacks, the ones that stick in the league for a long time and the ones that don’t. That ability to withstand that first wave of ‘adjustments’ from defensive coordinators and make their own. In a situation where he has to take over for Dalton and try and keep the Cowboys afloat, that ability to adjust may determine the Cowboys’ season.
It's the one thing you can’t tell from tape. And it's the reason McCarthy isn't just coaching Dalton this week ... he and the Dallas staff are also coaching DiNucci.
“Ben DiNucci needs to step up, too,” McCarthy said.