- Calvin Watkins, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- Mike Jenkins said it hit him when he became the full-time starter at cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys.
This isn't so hard.
Orlando Scandrick and Jenkins battled for the right cornerback job in training camp and at the beginning of the regular season. After Scandrick struggled in a Week 2 loss to the New York Giants, coach Wade Phillips gave the job to Jenkins.
Jenkins has rewarded Phillips and the rest of the defensive coaches for that decision with a team-leading two interceptions, and with seven passes defended he's tied for the team lead with veteran Terence Newman.
"After that Carolina game, I said, 'This is a little easier than I thought,'" Jenkins said.
As a rookie last year, Jenkins had to learn the pro game.
At South Florida, Jenkins mainly played man-to-man. Even when his team was in zone, Jenkins played press coverage. The only zone-type coverage Jenkins played was in the prevent.
In the pros, the Cowboys' base defense is quarters, in which each defensive back picks up a section of the field. On some situations, the Cowboys will play man-to-man, but Phillips, who is also the defensive coordinator, doesn't want his younger players doing that too often.
Jenkins struggled in the zone defenses so much that, despite being a first-round pick, he couldn't get on the field last season. Scandrick, who was a fifth-round selection from Boise State, was the nickel corner, while Jenkins came in on the dime.
The key for Jenkins was getting repetition -- working in practice against Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton, Miles Austin and Sam Hurd. And facing opponents such as the Falcons' Roddy White has improved his development.
He's got the skills -- he's athletic with good hands and speed -- to play corner. He was tentative last year in terms of being physical, but he's tackling better and making harder hits this year.
It's the progression the Cowboys had hoped for.
In practice, Jenkins had been constantly making interceptions. Just not in games.
Jenkins has an interception and three pass breakups in the past two games. On Sunday, he faces a Seattle team that runs the West Coast offense with veteran receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Nate Burleson and Deion Branch.
"Mike Jenkins has been playing well ever since we made the move to have him playing all the time," Phillips said. "I think it's worked out well for us. Just playing time with him -- he's getting better and better in practice.
"He was just getting a better feel for playing that position. He's really progressed."
Phillips said he likes Jenkins' confidence, which was waning a little last season.
The Cowboys coaches were a little concerned about Jenkins' mental makeup, but he arrived this year with a renewed focus and decided not to worry about who was playing in front of him or behind him.
"Once you register everything as far as the scheme, I felt OK," he said. "I had to learn everything new. Now I know it without even thinking about it. I'm just playing free."
Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail email@example.com.
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