Editor’s note: This story originally published on May 7. The seventh-round pick entered Dallas’ Week 7 game against Washington following an injury to starter Andy Dalton.
Late last week, Ben DiNucci was driving back from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with a couple of things he had left at his college place as he was preparing for the NFL draft.
The seventh-round pick had been part of the Dallas Cowboys for less than a week, and he was on his way back to his family’s home in Wexford, Pennsylvania. Instead of flying to Dallas for a rookie minicamp this week, he was back in his old bedroom, surrounded by trophies and posters reminding him of his dream of playing in the NFL.
“The bedroom’s still the same,” DiNucci said. “Might be a little more dust on [the trophies].”
Like the rest of the rookie class, DiNucci doesn’t know when he will make it to The Star, as NFL facilities are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. He has an iPad and playbook and, by the end of the week, will be taking part in virtual meetings with his new teammates.
Without the chance to be on the field in the offseason, DiNucci’s chances to impress the coaches will be more difficult, but that’s life every year for a late-round pick.
DiNucci is used to seizing opportunities.
Go back to January, when he was at The Star as James Madison’s quarterback, preparing for the FCS national title game against North Dakota State. The Dukes were staying at the Omni Hotel connected to the Cowboys’ practice facility, and DiNucci stepped on the elevator to get to a meeting.
A number of teammates were in the elevator — and so was Mike McCarthy, who only a few days earlier had been named Cowboys coach.
“He was standing in the back and I recognized him immediately, so I went to the back, stood by him and introduced myself,” DiNucci said. “Just elevator talk: ‘Hey, Coach, your brother Joe was my eighth-grade basketball coach.’ He was familiar with the Pine-Richland area, being from Pittsburgh. He said good luck, and I wished him the best of luck in Dallas.
“When I got off the elevator, I asked my teammates, ‘Any of you guys know who that was?’ And they were like, ‘No.’ ‘Come on, that’s coach McCarthy.’ It was pretty funny. They were like, ‘Are you kidding me?'”
From that chance meeting, DiNucci made an impression and McCarthy kept finding connections.
DiNucci grew up outside Pittsburgh, like McCarthy. He was coached by McCarthy’s brother. He started his college career at Pittsburgh, where McCarthy coached. His coach at James Madison, Curt Cignetti, is the brother of a former McCarthy assistant, Frank Cignetti Jr., who is now the offensive coordinator at Boston College.
All of that matched up with a need. The Cowboys wanted to draft a developmental quarterback and liked two others with loose ties to McCarthy. Florida International’s James Morgan went to Ashwaubenon High School, about a mile from Lambeau Field, where McCarthy coached for 13 seasons with the Green Bay Packers. Iowa’s Nate Stanley also is a Wisconsin native.
But DiNucci caught McCarthy’s eye. Including the playoff run, DiNucci completed 268 of 378 passes for 3,441 yards with 29 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2019. He also had seven rushing touchdowns. He cut his interceptions in half from his junior season.
“Very accurate,” McCarthy said of DiNucci. “Reminds me of a young Marc Bulger, someone that just, as you look for comparables, he is a young man that has played the position his whole life. He will be an excellent addition to our quarterback room as you continue to develop that room with our other two young guys [Cooper Rush and Clayton Thorson] and [starter] Dak [Prescott].”
Since McCarthy spoke about DiNucci following the draft, the Cowboys added veteran Andy Dalton as the backup quarterback and released Rush, who had been Dallas’ No. 2 quarterback since 2017. Keeping three quarterbacks is not something the Cowboys have done a lot recently, but the rosters have expanded from 53 to 55 as part of the new collective bargaining agreement.
Since getting picked, DiNucci has looked at Prescott’s YouTube highlights to get a feel for the Cowboys’ offense, although some of it will change with McCarthy’s arrival.
“I’ve paid attention to Dak,” DiNucci said. “He’s had a great few years. It’s crazy to think that’s the guy I’m going to be learning from, so I’m paying extra attention. You think of the playmakers on offense, Amari Cooper, [Michael Gallup], they had really good years; bringing in CeeDee [Lamb]; Zeke [Elliott] in the backfield. Some of those vertical shots in the offense helped. It’s going to be a fun offense, a similar one to what we ran in college. And Dak is a similar quarterback. I’m a guy that uses my legs, extends plays, that kind of off-platform stuff, different arm angles.
“It’s going to be fun to pick his brain.”