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FRISCO, Texas — Even for Micah Parsons, it’s difficult to distill Micah Parsons.
The Cowboys rookie likens himself to a wild bull whom you let run rather than pace. He envisions himself a Terminator, his hit list topped by his next opponent’s quarterback. He is a a hybrid coverage linebacker/edge rusher whose impact reverberates from whichever alignment on the field. He’s “as pure as mother’s milk,” says Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. “Nature gave him some skills and boy does he know how to use them.”
Parsons’ nascent NFL career spans just three games. And yet, he has already been credited with 1½ sacks, six quarterback hits, 13 tackles (two for loss) and two pass deflections as a linebacker, edge rusher and occasionally an interior defensive lineman mugging gaps. Parsons has created—or better yet, wrecked—plays from each alignment.
And lest Cowboys fans worry this diverse approach is hurting his effectiveness, advanced analytics site Pro Football Focus suggests not. Parsons’ 87.6 grade ranks highest among all rookies.
PFF’s highest-graded rookie this season…
Micah Parsons 💪 pic.twitter.com/NSKkGgW1qv
— PFF (@PFF) September 29, 2021
“If you’re a dog, you’re a dog,” Parsons said Wednesday. “It shouldn’t matter where you’re at on the field. You should have unbelievable effort and tenacity to go out there."
But beyond the 31½-inch arms wrapping quarterbacks and running backs alike in tackles, and the wide-eyed persona embracing the glamour of the Cowboys franchise, lies a 22-year-old whose physical, intellectual and emotional makeup have been curated carefully for this moment.
Parsons thinks back to the daunting Pennsylvania hills surrounding Central Dauphin High School, the tree-lined slopes he ran and bear-crawled on repeat as he began to find his identity as both man and player.
“Just think of it as if you were on all fours and you’re sideways,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “Just going one at a time. Some quit, some don’t.
“I never did.”
The roots of Parsons’ statistical and cultural impact at the Star trace back to more than just those Central Dauphin hills. But hill running, which coaches assigned Parsons both as conditioning and as reprimand for what he admits is a wandering mind, underscored his gifts.
“I kept getting faster and faster and faster,” Parsons said. “So eventually, I was like, I’m unstoppable on this hill.
“I think that’s where I get my closing speed.”
Parsons ran hills forward and backward, assuming a pushup position for lateral bear crawls and balancing on a single foot for incline jumps. When teammates were handed harnesses fastened to 100-pound sleds, Parsons was handed 125.
“He’d do it right beside teammates who had less weight and still beat them up the hill,” Denny Duttenhoffer, who oversees Central Dauphin’s strength and conditioning program, told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s a never-quit, I-gotta-get-there type thing.”
As Penn State recruited Parsons to its 2018 class, that motor and determination wowed coaches. Even as a freshman, Parsons engaged blocks and ripped through offensive linemen with an impressively low bend for his height. He began to grasp how best to respond to offensive linemen on blitzes, conceptualizing not just how to play each gap but why he was capitalizing on a particular leverage. Parsons believes he has a photographic memory, the reason he neither took notes in classes nor studied for tests earlier than the day they were held. He would memorize concepts day-of sufficiently, he says, to score an A or B. Parsons completed his degree from Penn State in under three years.
“I know I got a photographic memory somewhere in there,” said Parsons. “The photographic memory comes in clutch some times.”
Penn State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Brent Pry saw that football “came pretty easy” to Parsons.
“People underestimated how well he could learn,” Pry told USA TODAY Sports.
From the freshman scooping up the legs of then-Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins on a sack to Parsons’ 14-tackle, two-forced fumble collegiate finale at the Cotton Bowl, coaches and teammates credit Parsons’ competitive spirit with elevating the tenor of competition.
Cowboys fans got to see Micah Parsons chase down a QB last game. Micah's had some pretty ridiculous pursuits dating back to freshman year at Penn State, here vs. Dwayne Haskins: pic.twitter.com/h8UfRXCXET
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 23, 2021
“He’s a D-lineman’s dream as a linebacker because he always makes you right,” former Penn State teammate and Washington Football Team defensive end Shaka Toney told USA TODAY Sports. “You could play something a little bit differently or have a little bit of freedom to kind of do stuff just because of who he is and his athleticism, his ability to attack the football.”
Former Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Valentino, now a grad transfer at Florida, still can’t explain some bursts they would rewatch on film.
“There would be times where it doesn’t make sense: nobody should be able to cover that amount of ground that fast,” Valentino told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s running down receivers and running backs with ease, covering like 10-15 yards in four steps like a freak of nature.
“This guy is special.”
‘He could have double-digit sacks’
It is with this background that Parsons declared for the 2021 NFL draft, pitching teams he could wreak havoc from a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Versatility was a selling point. Mentality, too.
“He’s got a chance to be the best at the different things you’re asking your defense to do: roughing the quarterback, cover people man to man, or stop the run,” Pry said. “This guy’s got great instincts, great talent. He’s very driven to be great on the field.”
Parsons and coaches see a career blueprint far more sophisticated and expansive than what he has flashed in under a month. But at linebacker, Parsons immediately helped stabilize a Cowboys’ run defense that allowed 158.8 yards per game last season. When a six-to-eight-week injury timeline for DeMarcus Lawrence dictated Parsons play defensive end primarily in Week 2, Parsons tormented Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert on mere days’ notice. By his second game on the edge, Cowboys coaches had a full rush plan and call sheet ready for him.
Cowboys DC Dan Quinn on rookie Micah Parsons: "He can run and hit like a you-know-what. That’s his superpower. And he’s got rare speed and physicality to do that.
"I want to make sure that we’re always featuring that part of his game." pic.twitter.com/Q8MCnpps3Z
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 21, 2021
Against the Eagles, Parsons led the Cowboys with five pressures and three hustle stops (successful defensive plays in which he covered 20+ yards from snap to tackle), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He showed lateral quickness pacing speedy quarterback Jalen Hurts to the sideline on one second-quarter keeper, extending an arm to deflect a pass to running back Miles Sanders the following quarter. And with 8:26 to play, the Eagles facing a desperate fourth-and-10 but Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory losing balance on the left, Parsons stepped deftly over Gregory to blow up the right side of the backfield. Parsons and fellow rookie Osa Odighizuwa swarmed Hurts for a shared sack.
“When we see there’s blood in the water, keep him out there,” Gregory said. “Let him do what he’s got to do.
“He could have double-digit sacks this year if he wanted to. He really could. I really feel that way.”
Cowboys rookie Micah Parsons with TFL of Eagles QB Jalen Hurts. Cowboys ball to start Q2, 14-7 lead.pic.twitter.com/jjKqdOSAt6
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 28, 2021
The Cowboys continue to pump the brakes on Parsons transitioning wholly to edge rusher, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn adamant that the rookie's speed and physicality always be featured in game plans because “he can run and hit like a you-know-what,” Quinn said. “That’s his superpower.” Coaches relish how the balancing act that requires Parsons to study for two tests also demands opposing offensive coordinators remain ready for a pop quiz.
The debate raging through Cowboys Nation does not concern Parsons. He worries not about where his assignment begins, but instead about where he will go.
“The more I can do, the more I can get on the field,” Parsons said. “As long as we’re winning and I can be dynamic, I see no problem.”
It’s that favorite hobby, winning, that shapes Parsons’ time on and off the field. His Cowboys are a Tom Brady game-winning drive away from 3-0. But even before Parsons debuted against the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season opener, he was strategically working to win over teammates.
The rookie whom Quinn and senior defensive assistant George Edwards tie up for extra instruction — when Parsons spends meetings with the defensive line, his augmented lesson catches him up on linebacking and vice versa — arrived at training camp hungry to compete.
He also arrived at the Cowboys’ facility in Oxnard, California, armed with a Connect Four board.
“I’m trying to find different ways to get close with guys and understand how they’re built so they can understand how I’m built,” Parsons said at training camp. “It’s almost like math. Things don’t always add up, but you find the common round to connect with someone and connect with the other numbers.”
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) June 10, 2021
Parsons rallied draft classmates to join him at a bowling alley during rookie minicamp, later in the summer joining Idaho native and fellow Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch at a gun range. If getting behind the trigger could help Parsons understand the veteran’s horsepower, so be it. “Big Country,” as Parsons refers to Vander Esch, “plays aggressive.”
But shifting positions, Quinn says, is arguably the best way of all to gain credibility among teammates.
The Cowboys entered the season boasting an embarrassment of riches on offense, but questions about their defense halted most serious conversation about the franchise contending. Three games in, Parsons is among the top reasons why the defense no longer screams liability. Even with the loss of four defensive starters, the Cowboys have improved from 28th in scoring defense last season to 13th. Dallas also has a league-best eight takeaways in three games.
This week, the 2-1 Cowboys host the 3-0 Panthers, Sam Darnold the lucky target topping the Terminator’s current hit list.
Parsons is readying his game plan to play on the line and in coverage, the rookie now comfortable with an arsenal of three pass rush moves. He’s coy about his expected usage but intent that motor will remain his chief weapon.
“I want the Panthers to be on edge,” Parsons said. “There ain’t no limits.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Micah Parsons: Inside the Dallas Cowboys rookie's astonishing rise