Earlier this week, Alex McCalister did something new.
The second-year defensive end lined up out wide but before the snap, slipped inside just in time to dip and speed past offensive tackle Taylor Hart for a training camp sack.
"I would just run around people in college," McCalister said. "But everybody in the league is fast as hell, so you have to learn switch-ups and stuff."
At 6-foot-6, McCalister used his redshirt rookie season to gain some weight necessary to play in the NFL. Even with the extra weight, he's still long and lanky. Speed is still his greatest attribute. But speed isn't enough.
He can't be a one-trick pony as a pass-rusher. Not in the NFL.
So he's been working hard at developing a changeup to go with his fastball.
"It's big," veteran defensive end Chris Long said. "Good pass-rushers can threaten your inside, through you and on the edge. With the gifts [McCalister] has, to develop that part of his game is just going to make him really hard to block.
"Alex has a lot of gifts. Learning some new moves is just going to accentuate those gifts. I think everybody has to realize what their strengths are at some point and work on their weaknesses."
McCalister is happy about how he's improved his inside moves. He said all training camp he has been hitting offensive tackles with speed, so he knew he'd be able to sneak inside and beat them with a change of pace.
He's been noticing that tackles start to cheat when they think the outside speed rush is coming.
"Yeah, they just bail out immediately off the ball," McCalister said. "Which is good. I'm starting to set people up. Now I can take that inside move or show some power."
For the last week or so, McCalister has looked like a different player. He suffered a hamstring injury earlier in training camp, but since returning, he's been making a push while working with the third-team defense. The problem for McCalister is the depth at his position. Even without Marcus Smith, who was cut last month, McCalister is probably the sixth defensive end on the roster after Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Chris Long and Steven Means.
He's starting to make a push though.
In the Eagles' preseason opener, McCalister did some good things. He had 34 snaps, second most on defense, and picked up his first NFL (preseason) sack. He used a speed move around the right tackle to sack quarterback Taysom Hill with just over five minutes left in the game. He also forced a fumble on the play.
McCalister had two tackles, the sack, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble. Not bad.
"I don't think it was a secret," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "He made some plays in the game, but he was also up and down. It's a little bit difficult at the end of the game because you don't have — early in the game you can roll waves of guys through. You get into that fourth quarter and there is nobody else, and they've got to stay out there for an extended period of time. That being said, just all those guys need to be more consistent. I think every single guy out there made a play somewhere along the line. But it's not just about making a play, it's about making all the plays or making the majority of the plays and being consistent, and Alex is still working on that."
McCalister agreed with Schwartz's assessment. He acknowledged that he needs to be more consistent, but also thinks that will come once his conditioning gets better. Missing time with a hamstring injury didn't allow him to stay in as good of shape as he normally is.
Playing at the end of the game, McCalister just stayed in and didn't get to be part of a rotation.
"Suck it up," McCalister said. "Fight. I'm glad nobody took me out though, because in my head, I know I can fight through it."
For the last week or so, McCalister has looked like a different player and he's noticed it too. Although he doesn't know what sparked it, something has finally clicked. He no longer beats himself up over mistakes; he just moves on to the next play.
He used to drag after making a bad play; now he doesn't. McCalister knows it sounds cliché, but he's just trying to take every day and every play one at a time.
"I don't know [what changed]," McCalister said. "I don't know what it was. But I'm glad it happened."