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© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Padded practices are officially underway at Dallas Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, California, but their most notable recent addition isn't being thrown into the fire just yet. Malik Hooker, former first-round pick (15th overall) of the Indianapolis Colts in 2017, signed on with the team this week after the club revisited him following an initial workout in March. Hooker's first visit left the Cowboys underwhelmed at the time with his progress from a season-ending torn Achilles suffered in 2020. Five months later, Hooker is finally healthy and instantly injects a ton of competition at the safety position -- most directly to someone who's recent arc mirrors his own like a doppelganger.

That would be Damontae Kazee, who had a workout with the Cowboys in March as well, and who also worked his way back from a torn Achilles suffered last season. Kazee was much farther along in his rehab this spring, which led to him landing a one-year deal with the Cowboys. It was Kazee who won that battle, but as the page turns to August, Hooker is ready to step in to challenge him to be what the team is desperately seeking in tandem with breakout star Donovan Wilson.

"[The Cowboys are getting] a game-changer and an athletic ballhawk," Hooker told media this week. "That's what I've been since I came out [of Ohio State]. ... Also, vocally I'm a leader. That's the main thing: being able to get guys lined up and just making sure everybody is on one page."

And as for his health?

"I feel good right now," he added. "I came in Friday and they got the five-day protocol thing as far as the COVID situation and stuff like that. Physically, I feel great. No setbacks as far as where I'm at in the process of recovery and things have been going good. So now it's just taking my time and working back into playing football again. 

"You figure out I've been out a year, so they're taking their time with me and working me back into the process slowly and surely."

That is precisely the plan for head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, the latter looking to greatly improve the defensive unit over a year ago -- in Year 1 of his multiyear deal. Hooker hasn't taken a practice or game rep since Week 2 of last season, and the Cowboys are easing him into the mix in deliberate fashion. It's expected he'll begin ramping up as early as when the team resumes practice on Saturday, but even then it won't be a full workload, which likely won't occur until sometime next week or so, sources tell CBS Sports.

Noting the hardest part of his recovery was "gaining the strength back" in his lower leg, Hooker actually took to striking up a friendship with Kazee in March -- the two being able to both empathize and share tips on how to get back to prime form sooner than later.

"I met him on the visit [in the spring]," said Hooker. "I kind of knew him a little bit before. Obviously, what he did a couple of years ago, and stuff like that. Him being a great player as well. 

"And then on the visit -- we clicked on the visit. We chopped it up. Both going through the same injury. Even still to this day, that's probably one of the guys I talked to the most."

Did they just become best friends?

That sets the stage for an even more intriguing battle at safety, considering the deal on Hooker is expected to be of the one-year variety -- per sources to CBS Sports ahead of the signing -- pitting two newfound friends against each other in a prove-it year for both that could see one being shown the door, although it might behoove the Cowboys to retain both (all things considered). At minimum, Hooker and Kazee are battling for the starting role at free safety, but despite having had a run-in with the injury bug on several occasions already in his otherwise promising NFL career, Hooker is focused on what happens next.

And not what happened last.

"I really don't got nothing to prove," he said. "For me right now, it's just about getting out there and having fun and playing the game. Anybody that watched me play, anytime I played and I was healthy, I made an impact on the games I played. For me, it ain't about what I got to prove.

"It's about me staying available and stay healthy at this point."

That's saying a mouthful for the former consensus All-American -- who now joins Ezekiel Elliott and Noah Brown as notable Buckeyes on the Cowboys roster who also spent time together at Ohio State. Hooker underwent surgery on two separate occasions (torn labrum in his hip and sports hernia), suffered a groin injury to start training camp with the Colts as a rookie in 2017 en route to finishing his first year as a pro on injured reserve due to a torn ACL and MCL, missed time in 2018 with a hip and a foot injury, and then missed three games in 2019 with a torn meniscus in his knee that required surgery to repair. And, as noted, he'd go on to miss all but two games in 2020 with the torn Achilles.

It's been one bad break after another for Hooker, who is otherwise one of the best safety prospects the NFL has seen in a long time.

"It was frustrating for me at first, but now it comes with the game," said Hooker. "Every football player that plays the game, plays it in this system, specifically, they get something back whether it's a torn labrum whatever the case may be. For me, it's not really frustrating now, it's just about trusting it and trusting the process for me. Staying confident knowing, believing in my abilities and what I can do. 

"I feel like that was a big part of me getting back as fast as I did, feeling how I do now is just believing as a player in my abilities that the gifts that God gave me."

Those gifts are plentiful, as evidenced by the 25-year-old having seven career interceptions despite his durability issues. And he feels there's no better place to get back to work than with Quinn and the Cowboys -- in a scheme he feels greatly suited to excel in.

"The guys here -- I feel like a great system," he said of his decision to choose Dallas over six or seven other teams that showed interest this offseason. "A lot of fans, great players, players willing to be coaches for me, teaching me how the system works, plays and stuff like that. Just the system -- it's similar to what system I was in before. 

"I feel like this is the perfect place for me for my decision. It pretty much came out to they felt it was the same thing, or vice versa, and so it just came to an easy decision for me. I felt like this is where home was at."

If he can stay healthy and produce like the Cowboys know he can, he'll be allowed to unpack his bags in 2021, but time will tell if he allows Kazee to touch his drum set -- because even stepbrothers have to draw the line somewhere.