When Israel Mukuamu was drafted in the sixth round last year, the easy one-liner on him was that he was “the other” defensive back from South Carolina, after Jaycee Horn was taken eighth overall by the Panthers.
The cornerback-turned-safety has been on the field for just a handful of snaps over his first two seasons, but his mostly behind-the-scenes work ethic has turned heads on the Cowboys coaching staff, even prompting Mike McCarthy to single him out with a midseason accolade.
“Israel’s one of- or the most- improved players from last year to this year,” the coach told reporters Friday.
The brand-new 23-year-old (his birthday was Monday) saw the field for just 20 defensive snaps as a rookie. He surpassed that total in his first game out this season, playing 30% of the defensive snaps in Week 2.
With an early-season MCL sprain rendering Jayron Kearse inactive, Mukuamu logged similar playing time in Weeks 3 and 4, getting his first NFL starts in two of those contests.
His third start- and action on 46% of the defensive snaps, his most yet- came in Week 8’s win over Chicago, when Malik Hooker was out with a hamstring issue.
Mukuamu would probably stand to see extra time this Sunday night if Kearse cannot go; the veteran has been listed as “limited” on the team’s practice reports all week. Though officially termed “questionable” for the Week 13 clash with the Colts, Kearse is expected to be play.
Though he may be relegated to backup duty once again this week, the former Gamecock has put in the time to make sure that he won’t be just an injury fill-in for much longer.
“My memories of Iz are seeing him come in with everybody else in the morning, and then you walk down the hall,” McCarthy recalled, “at three o’clock, and he’s back out there doing it again. So he basically went to two-a-days, totally voluntary, on his own.”
He’s been a staple for John Fassel this season, participating in between 48% and 83% of the special teams snaps in every game he’s played (all but Week 1). He even represented the special teams unit as one of the Cowboys’ three game captains on Thanksgiving Day versus New York.
But he’s carving out a role in Dan Quinn’s unit, too, as his lanky 6-foot-4-inch frame allows him to be an effective cover man against the league’s large tight ends.
“Confidence is really what he needed, and he’s done an excellent job,” McCarthy concluded. “There’s some things he was asked to do on special teams that he did not do the first year, and he’s responded. Look at him on punt protection. He’s been a good matchup player for us from a coverage component. I really like the step that he’s taken this year.”
And while Mukuamu is still looking for his first regular-season interception as a pro (he snatched two in the 2022 preseason), he’s done enough to earn consideration for the “most improved” award from his head coach as the second-year man continues to make a name- and a reputation- for himself.