FRISCO, Texas – Antwaun Woods says the words rang in his ears anew every morning until training camp.
“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be on an NFL team right now,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli had explained in May. “Don’t eat yourself out of the NFL.”
Woods took the message to heart.
“Not embarrassed, because I don’t have sensitive feelings,” the Cowboys starting defensive tackle told USA TODAY Sports. “But I was like, ‘I can’t let that be the reason I’m not successful.’
So Woods stopped drinking and eating late. He repeatedly ran 100-meter sprints. He lost the roughly 30 pounds Marinelli requested he shed. He did so in the same way he’d attacked each step of his journey from the gang violence of his Los Angeles neighborhood to the charter school where he became an a high school All-American, to USC and then to the Titans’ practice squad, and ultimately the Cowboys’ first-team defense.
He vowed to adapt.
“You can give him $2 and throw him in the middle of Nebraska,” Chris Rizzo, Woods’ high school defensive coordinator, told USA TODAY Sports. “I guarantee you he’d be home in two days and be just fine.”
Rizzo would know. He was tasked with molding the talented freshman he poached from JV practices during hell week, only to wonder why Woods, who describes himself as a knucklehead at the time, was hesitant to trust his coaches. Soon Rizzo learned of Woods’ hour-long commutes to school on L.A. metro buses from Baldwin Village, where he says he grew up street-fighting and affiliated with gangs. “One of the bad kids,” Woods said, until a close call with law enforcement left him determined to seek a different life.
He channeled that aggression into excelling as a four-year starter on Taft High School’s offensive and defensive lines. As a nose tackle, he regularly staved off doubles teams. At times, opponents sent their center and two guards his way without luck, says Matt Kerstetter, Taft’s former head coach.
But the teenager who won chess trophies at the park and disrupted team meetings yelling out defensive backs’ coverages before they could answer was academically disinterested. He arrived at his last semester of high school eight credits short of eligibility to be eligible for USC.
Woods piled two night classes atop six courses at Taft that spring, emerging with seven A’s and one B. Four years later, he earned his family’s first college degree. His dad, whom friends and family call Big Phil, said Woods’ bachelor’s in sociology meant “everything.”
“I was a success at something,” Woods’ father said. “He’ll never have to fall victim to doing other things in life that can get you caught up. My son will never have to worry about what type of job he’s qualified for.”
But Woods still wondered: Could he prove he was qualified to be an NFL starter?
A futile draft in 2016 didn’t deliver the answer Woods sought. Despite starting four years and earning All-Pac-12 First-Team honors, he wasn’t selected. Woods signed with the Titans but said he didn’t fit well in their 3-4 scheme. He played just 17 snaps in one game through two seasons.
Even that lone appearance was fueled in part, his agent told him, by the Cowboys trying to claim him off Tennessee’s practice squad ahead of a 2016 playoff run. Marinelli says he had Woods on his radar for years thanks to Orgeron.
When the Titans cut Woods in May, Marinelli called.
By Aug. 4 at training camp, Woods was making waves.
He exploded so quickly off the line in a one-on-one drill against Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick that both tumbled to the ground. Frederick regained his footing and hovered over Woods with a retort. Woods retaliated with punches. Teammates rushed in to the fray.
Frederick and Woods each told USA TODAY Sports recently that the skirmish wasn’t personal. But “when you’re raised a certain way and you live your life a certain way, certain things trigger you,” Woods said.
“I taught him to be humble but not to be a lip biter,” added Woods’ father, who prayed Cowboys coaches wouldn’t dismiss his son’s competitive fire as a bad attitude. “If you’re always passive, you won’t go nowhere in life.”
Where Woods went next was his first September 53-man roster. In three months, he had risen from fourth-string to first.
In 14 starts since, coaches and teammates say Woods’ stat line – 32 tackles (two for loss), four quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks and a pass deflection – don’t capture the extent of his run-plugging impact.
Marinelli delighted when Woods busted Washington’s offensive line to down Adrian Peterson for no gain and when he chased Saints star Alvin Kamara in the Cowboys’ upset of New Orleans until Kamara fled out of bounds 2 yards away from the red zone. In Week 5, Woods also escaped Texans center Nick Martin’s hold to wrap up running back Alfred Blue from behind on a 3-yard loss on first-and-goal in a sequence that left Houston settling for a field goal. He was credited with just 1/2 of those three tackles, but Marinelli insisted Woods and fellow defensive tackle Maliek Collins’ “bully ball” drives the Cowboys’ fifth-ranked run defense.
“He’s getting ahead of close calls and just makes it easier on me,” Linebacker Jaylon Smith told USA TODAY Sports. “I know he’s always alert.”
Sixteen weeks into the NFL season, Woods has settled into a routine. He trades jabs with Collins throughout the week at practice as each aims to “understate and overdeliver.” He heads home at nights to wife Shelby and 2-year-old son ‘Twaun Junior, and the trio holds a FaceTime session with Big Phil almost daily as Woods lives out two more dreams.
“To have both parents in the house,” Woods said, “and to have a house.”
Still, Woods knows, he needs to adapt. At home, he eagerly anticipates his daughter’s Feb. 28 due date, already planning to host tea parties for her to “soften me up a little bit.”
On the field, Woods and Collins excelled before a Week 15 setback in which the Colts rushed for more than twice the average yardage the Cowboys entered the game having allowed. Dallas was shut out for the first time in 15 years in the 23-0 defeat.
“Game ball last week, and got my (expletive) whooped this week,” Woods said after what he called a “horrible” Tuesday film session. He imposed a 24-hour self-pity-and-move-on period. By Wednesday, he calmed.
And by Sunday, Woods was back to performing at the level he expects from himself.
He also went viral.
Woods mocked Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, mimicking his “eating a W” celebration after a fourth-quarter scramble fell just short of first down in the Cowboys’ 27-20 win . After the video spread, teammates DeMarcus Lawrence and Taco Charlton chimed in by saying “ZERO CHILL” and “you real life childish.”
But to define Woods by that jab alone without considering his move six plays later doesn’t do him justice. It was on fourth-and-5 from Dallas’ 7 that Woods caught Winston’s legs to down him a half-yard short and preserve the Cowboys’ two-score lead.
“Pop and it’s ‘wow,’ ” Marinelli said of the play. “Kind of neat.”
And the concerns that Woods, now eating W’s in December, would eat himself out of an NFL opportunity over the summer?
“He came in and man, he was a new man,” Marinelli said. “Looked good in a suit.”
Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.