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Cowboys 2015 Training Camp Practice Summary: A Quiz On Chapter One

Observations from the Cowboys’ fourth training camp practice, which featured further work on the lessons Jason Garrett and his fellow coaches have implemented thus far.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As you know, I am a college professor. In that capacity, I find training camp's pedagogical process to be fascinating, particularly the development of skills that are then honed and assembled over the course of a practice, a series of practices, a camp, a season. With that in mind, on Sunday the Cowboys continued earlier lessons, revisiting and polishing elements installed in the three earlier camp sessions. Since tomorrow is an off day, we can look at Thursday-Sunday as the first chapter in Jason Garrett's Oxnard textbook. Having read and studied the chapter, the players were duly quizzed on its contents this afternoon.

I cannot say with great confidence that the players passed. In today's presser, Jason Garrett made a point of saying that he felt Saturday's practice was "sloppy." With that in mind, I rather expected for the players to respond and for today's work to be a crisp affair. Instead, they were once again very rough around the edges: false starts, dropped passes, errant snaps, fumbles, and other mental and physical lapses were the order of the day. I think a lot of this has to do with the players getting acclimated to the rigorous pace being set thus far. In the past, I have termed Garrett's camps "Camp Tempo," but the first four days here are the most brisk I have yet seen.

One of the most memorable features of last year's camp was the way Garrett and Co. handled the final team period, the 11-on-11 session that served as the culmination of the day's work. Typically, the speakers came on, pumping noise (i.e. music), and the players were given scenarios (trailing with fewer than two-minutes remaining; trying to protect a lead, etc) within which to implement the day's teaching. The overall effect was clear: the coaching staff wanted to subject their charges to pressure-filled situations in order to harden them and to gauge how they would respond. We haven't seen much of this yet in 2015 (they did call out down and distances in the final segment of the today's last team period), which has me wondering if the increased tempo serves a similar function: ratcheting up the pressure, especially for the younger players.

This weekend's sloppiness shouldn't cause anxiety; there will be a series of more rigorous and more heavily-weighted tests in future (the Blue-White scrimmage, preseason games), so the players' performance today is less important than the fact that they hit the season's first marker and continue to be enrolled in the class. Yesterday, linebacker Justin Jackson tore his ACL; today, promising rookie OL Rashod Fortenberry, who drew praise from both scouts and coaches for his work in OTAs and minicamps, went down with a knee injury that was severe enough to necessitate that he be taken off the field on a cart. One cannot pass a class one doesn't attend, so both Jackson and Fortenberry will likely have to withdraw before the semester really began in earnest. What a shame.

A late addition to the class was Jeremy Mincey, who joined his teammates on the field today after ending his holdout, apparently successfully. Reports are that the team will pay him the playing time bonus he barely missed out on last season - a cool $500,000. Now, he will make more than the punter. Mincey spent the day working with trainers on the sidelines, jogging lightly. During the practice's second competitive period, he was seen offering advice on shifting weight to Randy Gregory, who also collected a hatful of tips from Charles Haley. It's a huge unknown what, if anything, Gregory will produce this season, but it won't be for lack of quality instruction; a bevy of top-quality and seasoned vets have taken him under their collective wing and shared their accumulated knowledge with the talented but raw defensive end. Heck, even Tyron Smith has weighed in...

On Sunday, we saw continued use of the dime package I mentioned yesterday wherein Corey White essentially played linebacker, in such a way that he was capable of participating in interior blitzes or other line games and also of dropping into coverage. Today, we again saw White deploy in this manner, but with the second team. The first team dime linebacker was first rounder Byron Jones. It's early, but it appears that the team will use Jones and White as the back seven's version of the Wallet Ninja multi-purpose tool. They share a similar build, and both seem capable of lining up at linebacker, safety or corner. The early returns suggest that Rod Marinelli, given more toys than he's previously had to work with, will be concocting some creative personnel groupings and alignments.

If the first four days are any indication, I also think he'll be dialing up more pressure. A large percentage of what we have seen from his defense thus far has been a wide variety of blitzes, by a wide variety of players and from a wide variety of positions and angles. To my mind, this goes hand in hand with the work secondary coach Jerome Henderson has been doing with his cornerback crew - heavy schooling in the rudiments of press man: footwork (especially the critical first two or three steps), hand placement on the receiver, turning to locate the ball. In talking about this with wise observers, the consensus is that the Cowboys coaching staff realize they have the horses, both in the front four and in the secondary, to play pressure defense.

Since the work on both sides of the ball must be complimentary (it makes no sense for the offense to work on goal line while the defense polishes the nickle), Scott Linehan and his offensive coaches have been drilling the guys in the white jerseys in the various reads, blocking schemes and routes designed to beat blitzes, particularly the interior blitzes that they occasionally fell prey to in 2014. The other material from the playbook receiving extra attention the first four practices has been zone running, particularly outside the guards.

Thinking about the material Jason Garrett and the coaching staff chose to cover in camp's opening phase has me wondering: what does it mean. My answer is this: by opting to have the players work on blitzing, press man, blitz pickup and zone running in particular, the coaching staff is claiming this to be the foundational material on this year's Oxnard syllabus. Perhaps more importantly, they are announcing that this is how they want to win in 2015: by running the ball, beating the blitz and playing pressure defense. Given the changes to the roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball, this seems to be both a reasonable and powerful message.

Stay tuned, loyal readers; I'll have a fuller, more detailed report on the day's action later tonight/ early tomorrow morning (depending on your time zone)...


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