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Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Report, Practice Number Nine: The Walking Wounded Return

Might Pat McQuistan be the answer to the Cowboys backup center woes?
Might Pat McQuistan be the answer to the Cowboys backup center woes?

Perhaps the dominant storyline of training camp's first week was what we might term the Tale of the Walking Wounded. As you may recall, 20% of the team was unavailable to participate in Sunday's Blue-White scrimmage, and every practice has seen more than a handful of players working on the sidelines with the training staff. None of these injuries were cause for significant hand-wringing; almost all of the guys held out would have played if it were a regular season game. Nevertheless, it proved an annoyance, particularly on the offensive line, where continuity is of such import, and camp offers the best chance to establish that continuity.

At last, the ranks of the walking wounded appear to be thinning. Today, Mackenzie Bernadeau and Danny Coale were in pads and participating in all aspects of practice (although Bernie's reps were limited; he shared first-team snaps with Ronald Leary). They were joined by defensive linemen Marcus Spears and Jay Ratliff (who, like Bernadeau, begged off some reps and took others at half speed) and cornerback Teddy WIlliams. Spears and WIlliams are expected to play on Monday in Oakland; the others will probably see their first action in San Diego.

Moreover, many other injured players are on the precipice of a return. Watching practice, we can generally assess the imminence of a given player's return by when he begins to work with resistance bands, which usually indicate that we'll see him suiting up in about three days time. Today, quite a few players were "working the bands": Mo Claiborne, Matt Johnson, Nate Livings, Saalim Hakim, and Lance Dunbar all took turns running while attached to the springy apparatus. In addition, both Claiborne and John Phillips took part in the morning's walk-through practice. So, if history is any indication, all of these guys will be practicing soon, after the team returns from Oakland at the latest. More good news? Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher, both with leg injuries, spent practice time running on the sidelines...

Check out the day's other storylines after the jump...

Besides the return of so many players, Thursday's festivities boasted a couple of other compelling, and related, storylines. First off, it was a very spirited affair; an off-day removed from Tuesday's exhausted, end-of-the-week death march, it was clear the coaching staff wanted to snuff out any possibility that the players would pick up where they left off. The practice moved briskly, with players moving crisply from period to period. Which brings us to the second storyline: a great many of these periods featured full squad scrimmaging, to a much higher degree than we had seen in recent practices. With a Monday-nighter in Oakland looming, the coaching staff seems to be gearing the team for an actual game - which features, you know, a lot of 11-on-11 work.

As usual, we arrived to find the offensive line already on the field, working on pass sets with Bill Callahan. I know this sounds like a broken record, but Callahan continues to work his guys at every available turn - and not just the scrubeenies; Tyron Smith was on the field working with Callahan for 20 minutes after the morning walk-through. What was different this time around was that the O-line was split into three groups. Callahan was working with the offensive guards and Wes Philllips had the tackles. Watching over quarterback-center exchanges? None other than Jason Garrett. And, in a weird twist, OT Pat McQuistan was working on snaps. Was this a sign, or merely an opportunity to increase McQ's bottom-of-the-roster positional diversity (see: Albright, Alex).

Once they got to work, the first order of business, as per usual, was special teams work, focusing on kickoff returns wherein the kick is received near the sidelines by one of the up guys rather than in the middle of the field by the primary returner. As always, Coach Joe DeCamillis, with help from TE coach John Garrett, broke a complex operation into a set of discrete, teachable units, working with each level of the return team in turn: the two guys in the middle worked on working backwards, planting, finding their man, and then engaging with him. The "wedge" guys worked on floating over to the side, and creating a crease for the returner to give him the sideline. Then, they put it all together.

The first-team "up" guys was comprised mostly of the usual suspects, who were core teams guys last year: Barry Church, Danny McCray, Alex Albright. A new face here was Dan Connor, which makes sense, given the fact that whichever of the two guys competing for the ILB spot next to Sean Lee comes in second will have to log more special teams snaps. Rookie linebacker Kyle Wilber, who the team hopes can become another core special teamer, repeatedly drew DeCamillis' ire.

Wanna know how the team ranks the candidates for third receiver? Watch the return game on Monday. Reports are that Cole Beasley ran with the first team in the walk-through (he also started in the slot in the scripted 11-on-11 work) and will serve as the primary punt returner on Monday Night. It's clear the coaching staff is trying to find a roster spot for him. That said, they can't carry a third receiver who doesn't play a key role on special teams. Since Beasley was getting knocked around during teams drills last week, his success as a returner might well be the deciding factor in his earning a roster spot. But he's not the only one: both Kevin Ogletree and Tim Benford got a lot of work as return men in the kickoff drill; they, too, will need ST success to lock up a roster spot.

After the special teams work, they horn sounded and the team broke into the scripted 11-on-11 work with which they have been beginning every Oxnard session. The pages torn from the playbook for today's action were from the chapters on "heavy" (i.e., three tight end) formations and red zone offense, so we saw a lot of "ace" sets (with one running back) but, instead of a 3-TE sets, they lined up in a lot of 2 TE sets with a fullback. Was this due to the fact that there are currently only three healthy TEs in camp, or does it gesture towards the possibility that, with Lawrence Vickers aboard (and the fact that he's shown himself to be more versatile than advertised), the "F" back will give way more often in 2012 to a more traditional fullback?

After the scripted work, the team broke into various position groups. The O-line was split, with Callahan taking the right/ strongside and Phillips the left/ weakside players. They worked on getting position in order to drive block defenders in a specific direction and then on double-teaming a defender with correct pad level, with one of the linemen peeling off to engage with a second level player. On the same field, the receivers John Garrett worked with his tight ends - and, once again, Alex Albright spent extensive time as a tight end in today's practice. Watching him work alongside Jason Witten, I'm more convinced that he has already made the team, and the coaching staff is now working on increasing his versatility, a la former Patriots and Chiefs LB-cum-TE Mike Vrabel.

The defensive linemen conducted agility drills, which were instructive. Even while a bit hobbled, Ratliff looked fluid and agile, as did Tyrone Crawford and former Aggie Ben Bass. Marcus Spears, on the other hand, suffers by comparison: he's slow and not nearly as balanced. Kenyon Coleman and Clifton Geathers both move well, but look very top-heavy. They then worked on a stack-and-shed drill, where they tried to get their hands inside those of an offensive player so they could toss him to one direction and then swim under and cut upfield in the other. Coach Brian Baker worked with them carefully on how to shift their weight to stay balanced throughout. Later, they worked the same drill using blocking sleds.

While this was happening, the DBs reprised a drill we saw a few days ago: they backpedal, then plant and drive forward in order to make an interception. Soon thereafter, the defensive linemen worked on stripping the quarterback: they would work past a tackling dummy, turn the corner and swat a ball away form a coach who was holding it aloft. While this was happening, the linebackers worked on dropping into coverage in one direction, then changing direction in order to make a pick. In all of these, coaches could be heard screaming at players to go for the ball. Clearly, "generating more turnovers" is a line item at the top of the Cowboys' 2012 to do list.

After this, several of the units broke into passing drills, with tights ends and fullbacks running a series of combo patterns from the aforementioned two-TE formations against linebackers and safeties. Albright worked with the TEs in this drill, and looked surprisingly fluid running patterns. In addition, Vickers and Jamize Olawale look much more athletic than initially advertised. Shaun Chapas, on the other hand? A poster child for the stiff, bulky fullback type.

With a little more more than an hour remaining, the team gathered as a group around the coaches (who were riding their backsides all afternoon) before breaking into a full squad scrimmage. The team faced off for some situational work: a series of end-of-half scenarios during which the offense worked to set up a field goal by running one or two plays and them running the field goal unit onto the field. Cole Beasley distinguished himself: in the first series, he made a nice grab to set up a Dan Bailey field goal; on the next, he drew a pass interference on Orlando Scandrick to set up another three-pointer by the Cowboys' Mr. Automatic (he was again spotless on the day, going 3 for 3). On a third, Felix Jones scooted behind a nice David Arkin trap block to notch a big gainer, which was met with a long string of Rob Ryan invectives. But the offense didn't dominate; Both Tyrone Crawford and Sean Lissemore made nice moves to earn would-be sacks of Romo.

They next moved to a team run period, and we saw techniques in action that Callahan and his charges had worked on earlier in the practice. On a nice outside run to Jones, the linemen managed to drive block their opponents just as Callahan had instructed them in the drills described above.

In the run period, recent returnee Mackenzie Bernardeau acquitted himself quite well. In drills, he clearly delivered a pop, driving back his fellow O-linemen. In the scrimmage, he continued this, and did a nice job reacting nicely to stunts and line games, which is a concern with a player who has missed so much practice time. The early returns on Big Mac are positive, and he's an evident upgrade over Leary, with whom he shared snaps today. Perhaps due to his return, the Cowboys quarterbacks appeared to have more time to throw today; the pendulum, which had swung forcefully towards the defense last week, is headed in the other direction.

The full squad scrimmage continued as they worked up the passing plays on today's menu. Many of them featured two bunched or stacked receivers, as well as a lot of heavier "22" personnel, with two TEs and two RBs. Felix Jones got some great blocking on a screen pass and, once again, Olawale showed that he had some surprisingly good wheels. I can't imagine him sticking on the roster, but I hope he can get onto the practice squad, as he seems to have a lot of diversity (he can play FB, a little RB, and has lined up at WR in the past) that, with some development, wouldprovide excellent depth.

The team broke into one last round of offensive and defensive drills, the highlight of which was a one-on-one pass rush drill. Again, Crawford and Lissemore looked good, exhibiting strength, quicks and change of direction, and Josh Brent walked Harland Gunn straight back to the quarterback. Ben Bass has some raw tools, but they need to be refined; I think he's a year away. On the far end of the field, 7-on-7 drills focused primarily on red zone passing plays.

Next, they returned to situational work, on end-of-half scenarios. This time, the defense was tasked with getting a late-game stop. They succeeded, holding stout on a third and short, forcing a Chris Jones punt. In several situations today, it seemed that one of the goals was to shuttle in a given special teams unit in a hurry. We saw this on Jones' punt as well as with the five field goal attempts in the earlier two-minute period.

The afternoon concluded as the team gathered to put together a practice's worth of red zone work. Some highlights: C. J. Wilson made a nice play on a corner blitz. As Romo went to his man on a hot read, Wilson jumped up to block and almost intercept the pass. It was a nice bang-bang play, even if Wilson cursed himself for no making the pick. James Hanna caught a pretty touchdown as Kyle Orton arced a pass over a trailing defender.

And, on the final play of practice, Andre Holmes, who had trouble high-pointing the ball earlier in the practice, did a nice job using his height to sky over a defender to come up with a pass in the corner of the end zone. It was a fitting end to the day for Holmes, who, after a shaky start, made several terrific plays, laying out to bring in an Orton pass, getting his feet in to bring in another pass, and running crisper routes. Might we look back to this practice as the one when Holmes began to make his move? Only time will tell.


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