FRISCO, Texas — The emergence of DaRon Bland in 2023 has been simply special. There’s only a few other words to explain the kind of sophomore campaign that he’s put together.
The interceptions. The pick-sixes. The elite coverage skills on elite receivers. If you ask him to fulfill a task, he’s been right there ready to do it.
While his greatness has been – great – he hasn’t been the only one on Dan Quinn’s defensive unit that has stepped up and fulfilled a huge role this season that has Dallas’ defense not only set to take on its toughest stretch of the season, but a playoff run in January as well. He’s not the only second-year player, either.
When Damone Clark was drafted in the fifth round of the 2022 draft, he was fresh off a spinal fusion surgery that put the longevity of his football career in question. Despite that, the Dallas Cowboys trusted in their training staff and trusted in their scouting department enough to take the chance on the LSU product, and man has it paid off.
Not only was Clark able to bounce back and play in 10 games in 2022 as a rookie, but he’s stepped into a starting role as a second-year player and has taken on challenge after challenge and continues to exceed expectations.
He’s not the flashiest player on the field. He’s not the jersey you’ll see all over AT&T Stadium on Sunday afternoons. The young buck simply just does his job. Without him, this defense looks much different.
Since the season-ending injury to Leighton Vander Esch, Clark has been tasked with taking on more communication with the defense and being the experience in the linebacking corps. While his play has allowed the defense around him to thrive, even after arguably the best game of his second season with nine tackles on Thanksgiving, you won’t be able to pull any ego out of the man who once wore the esteemed No. 18 at LSU for being a humble teammate.
“God, honestly,” Clark attributed to his performance on Thursday. “It started off slow, but God won’t give us no more than we can handle or bear. I just thank God to allow me to continue to get better and push each week. That’s my only goal, to get better.”
Clark isn’t the only one. When Markquese Bell was brought in as an undrafted free agent out of Florida A&M, he had come off an interesting and well-traveled college career. Originally a prized four-star recruit in the class of 2017 that chose to attend Maryland over Ohio State, Clemson and others, Bell’s time as a Terrapin was cut short when he was suspended from the team in 2018 before ever playing a game.
His journey led him to Coffeyville Community College in 2018 where he quickly rose as one of junior college’s top defensive backs which led him to the opportunity to finish his career at Florida A&M from 2018-2021.
In his time as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, exceeding expectations has also been a key theme. Brought in as a safety with the idea of excelling on special teams early on and rotating in defensively, Bell did just that in his rookie year when he was elevated off the practice squad and onto the active roster to finish the final five games of the regular season.
In 2023, Bell has been asked to step in and play directly alongside Damone Clark in the second level following the season-ending injury to Leighton Vander Esch, and he has shown up as one of the league’s top pass-defending linebackers through 11 games with his 90.2 pass coverage grade ranking second among all NFL linebackers this season.
Despite injuries mounting at the linebacker position, Clark and Bell have not only stepped up. They’ve allowed for seamless transitions and continued confidence in the core youth that the defensive unit as a whole continues to show.
Bell has been able to show reliability in pass defense while Clark has been the all-around defender that fills running lanes and continues to show improvement as an NFL linebacker with each time he steps on the field. Specifically since Bell’s arrival, those improvements can be seen exactly where Bell succeeds the most: in the pass game.
“I’ll be real with you, Bell motivates me,” Clark said. “We compete with one another. We compete within the game. That’s the fun part about it. We just go out there and feed off each other and keep going.”
Brotherhood is typically formed under the pretense of adversity, at least in my experience. When Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki entered the league as young stars expected to perform with the Dallas Mavericks, they grew close. When Tony Romo took on the job as the starting quarterback for the Cowboys in 2006, Jason Witten became his trusted confidant.
Now, I’m not putting the expectations of Damone Clark and Markquese Bell on the same level. I’ll be shocked if we look up at training camp next season and Bell is still playing linebacker full-time – a role he hasn’t fully played in his entire career. Shoot, if the Cowboys close on signing Shaquille Leonard, that reality could come as soon as next week.
But if it doesn’t, this duo has proved this season that they have the capability to make this defense even more insufferable to play on Sundays (or Thursdays for that matter). With every game and rep that they notch under their belt, they are showing that they are making continued improvements.
While Bland deserves his shine as well as Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Stephon Gilmore and so many more on this defense, don’t forget about the two guys in the middle. They might not get their name called a whole lot by Kevin Burkhardt and Jim Nantz, but it’s for good reason.
These two have been asked to do a near impossible job in 2023, and what have they done? Just that and more. If the Cowboys walk away next week without Shaquille Leonard on this roster, it won’t be the end of the world despite what social media tells you.
Because the world with Bell and Clark is just beginning.