SAN ANTONIO – Former Northern Illinois star Sam Hurd leaps with a defender on his back and his arms almost fully extended above his head to grab the ball for a long gain.
That spectacular play during the Dallas Cowboys' team drills Monday came only a few snaps after Hurd cut across the middle in traffic and reached to catch a ball thrown behind him.
"Sam Hurd makes an unheard of catch every day, I think," coach Wade Phillips said.
Along with the acrobatic catches in camp, Hurd led the Cowboys with a team-high five receptions for 79 yards in the preseason opener while playing with the second-team offense. With No. 1 receiver Roy Williams bothered by a sprained left wrist, though he did practice Monday, there could be more opportunities for Hurd in the next game on Friday night.
Now in his fourth season, after being limited to three games last year with no catches because of a recurring ankle injury, Hurd is ready to be a consistent contributor.
"I have been patient, patiently waiting," Hurd said. "As a rookie, you don't even think you're going to make it.You're just working your hardest. ... I took advantage of everything I could do to get better, and it's been a blessing that each year I've developed and grown a little better."
When he came to camp as an undrafted rookie out of Northern Illinois in 2006, Hurd became a constant companion of Terrell Owens, trying to learn everything he could from the veteran receiver.
Now with T.O. gone, there are more chances for every Dallas receiver.
"Sam has been good since I've been here," quarterback Tony Romo said. "I've always had a good feel for Sam and his routes and just trusting him to do things that needed to be done."
Hurd was in the mix to again be the team's primary No. 3 receiver during camp last year before injuring his ankle in the final preseason game. He finally got to play, then got hurt again.
While his body healed, Hurd also refreshed his mind with a renewed spiritual awareness of his Christian faith. And then went to work.
"I'm excited about him because he prepares, he studies and he does everything possible to be the best," receivers coach Ray Sherman said. "He works hard. You've got to tell him to relax sometimes because he will overdo it sometimes. He'll push himself to the limit. Sometimes, I'll take him out and say, 'You've done enough.'"
Hurd has had plenty of highlights in training camps before, getting attention for his time with Owens as a rookie in California, then being noticed by the home folks when the Cowboys moved camp back to San Antonio two years ago.
Camp injuries to other receivers gave Hurd a chance to make the team as a rookie, and his primary contributions during the season came on special teams. With Terry Glenn injured again in 2007, Hurd was mainly the No. 3 receiver (19 catches, 314 yards, one touchdown) and again played special teams.
Until the preseason opener in Oakland last week, though, Hurd hadn't caught a pass since the 2007 season finale.
"Everything felt good," Hurd said. "Got to knock off the rust and get back into game mode."
As for the highlight-worthy catches Hurd has been making, he even prepared for those. During offseason workouts with strength coach Joe Juraszek, Hurd worked on diving for the ball.
"If the ball is going to be out there, you can't be scared to go get it," Hurd said. "You can't worry about hitting your body and hurting your body. ... I just give all my effort I can, leave it out here on the field. I'll heal up in the training room."