FRISCO, Texas — Roger Canepa was at the Peppery Bar & Grill last month in Sonora, California, “enjoying a soda,” as he called it, while watching the Dallas Cowboys and one of his former players, DaRon Bland.
After the cornerback returned an interception of a Matthew Stafford pass in the Cowboys’ win against the Los Angeles Rams, Canepa told his friends he was going to call his former wide receiver and cornerback at Central Catholic High School in Modesto.
“I remember saying, ‘DaRon got a pick. I’m going to call him,'” Canepa said. “This is 30 minutes after the game. They’re like, ‘He’s not going to answer,’ and he picks up, ‘How ya doing, Coach?’ That’s just how he is.”
As Canepa watched Bland run 30 yards for the touchdown that gave the Cowboys a 14-point lead, he saw the same kid who was at Central Catholic, winning three state championships.
“Just a little thicker and a little bigger,” Canepa said.
When the Cowboys lost Trevon Diggs to a torn ACL in his left knee before the third game of the season, they never could have imagined Bland would press for an NFL record for interception returns for a touchdown, but they knew he would play well.
As a rookie fifth-round pick last season, he led the Cowboys in interceptions with five. It was the most in a season by a Dallas rookie since Derek Ross and Roy Williams in 2002. He has added five more interceptions this season and his 10 over the past two years are the most in the NFL.
“There’s never been anything that’s been too big for him. He has a small-school background but he doesn’t come across that way,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “He really took to the coaching. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a real competitor. He’s someone that we really count on.”
What’s different about Bland’s interceptions are what he does after them. This season, he has returned three for touchdowns, a Cowboys’ single-season record. One more and he will tie an NFL single-season record held by Eric Allen (1993), Ken Houston (1971) and Jim Kearney (1972).
“I’m trying to make it my thing,” he said of the pick-six.
Bland’s knack for a pick-six started in high school when he had three, including two in the state championship as a junior.
Through the first eight games this season, he was tied for the Cowboys’ lead in touchdowns — as a defensive player — until receiver CeeDee Lamb scored twice and tight end Jake Ferguson scored once last week against the New York Giants. No other team has a defensive player with more than two touchdowns this season.
“It’s just opportunities,” Bland said. “You can’t go in chasing a pick-six or you’re going to get a touchdown scored on you. Yeah, you just got to, when it comes to you, just be ready.”
Canepa has coached for 40 years, including the past 16 at Central Catholic. Bland stands among the best players he has coached, and he could not understand why Bland did not garner more attention. As a senior in high school, Bland had a scholarship offer from San Jose State but that was pulled when the coaching staff was fired. The only other offer came from Sacramento State, where he played for three seasons before transferring to Fresno State.
“I said to a [coaching] buddy, ‘Hey, let me tell you something, let him walk on, and if he doesn’t earn a scholarship, I’ll pay for it myself,'” Canepa said. “That’s how positive I was that he was going to make it. Back then, he just had it. He was athletic. Just one of them guys. Great hips.”
As Canepa watched Bland ice the Rams’ game, he thought of the 2015 CIF State Championship Open Division Small School Bowl final against San Marino when Bland returned two interceptions for touchdowns of 43 and 39 yards.
“Jumped the route,” Canepa said, “and he was gone.”
Cowboys secondary coach Al Harris first thought Bland would have a chance to be a “ball guy” when he got his first look at him in the pre-draft process.
“I always look at how fast guys match out-breaking routes, and watching his college tape, you see him match those out-breaking routes,” Harris said. “Quick. In the NFL, those out-breaking routes are interception opportunities, so when you see that in a guy, just look at his lateral movement, that jumped out to me automatically just with the first couple passes I seen thrown at him.”
But why Bland has been able to become something of a pick-six master cannot be explained. The ball just seems to find him.
“Man, good question,” Harris said. “You probably got to ask God, his mom, dad. But he does a really good job of reading his keys and making the decision to go get the ball.”
Sometimes fortune is involved, like his first pick-six in the season opener. Diggs hit Giants running back Saquon Barkley so hard, a pass bounced into Bland’s hands for a 22-yard touchdown that gave the Cowboys a 16-0 lead.
🗣️Bland with a PICK-6!
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) September 11, 2023
Sometimes a quick memory is involved, like his second one. Early in the second quarter in Week 4, New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones completed a pass across the field in front of Bland for a decent gain. Trying it again while scrambling to his right, Bland read the throw to Kendrick Bourne and returned it 54 yards to up the Cowboys’ lead to 28-3.
To the CRIB with @DaRon_Bland 🏡
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) October 1, 2023
Sometimes proper technique helps, like his most recent one in Week 8. With Rams receiver Cooper Kupp lined up in a stack, Bland had to react quickly to a Stafford throw that was too far inside. Thirty-yards later, Bland had his third pick-six and the Cowboys had a 17-3 lead.
.@DaRon_Bland and pick-sixes just go together 🤧
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) October 29, 2023
“Any time the ball comes near me, I’m trying to think, ‘What can I do to try and pick it?'” Bland said.
Much like the fisherman telling a story of the one that got away, Bland had a pick-six that went awry in his only season at Fresno State.
In 2021, Boise State tried a trick play with a lateral to a wide receiver, who threw a downfield pass to an open receiver. One problem — Bland was able to recover and track down the interception. While momentum carried him just into the end zone, he was credited for a 97-yard return for a score after breaking at least three tackles.
Unfortunately, there was a holding penalty.
“It was a freshman,” Bland smiled.
The freshman apologized. Profusely.
“I don’t think it was a hold honestly,” Bland said. “Don’t think it should’ve been called.”