DallasCowboys.com Staff Writer
May 12, 2007 6:54 PM
Mini-Camp Notes: Spencer Steps Right In
IRVING, Texas - Rookie linebacker Anthony Spencer didn't take long to work with the Cowboys' first-team defense. When the team shifted to 7-on-7 drills in the first practice of a three-day mini-camp Saturday morning, there was Spencer, manning the left outside linebacker spot.
But it's not time to pencil the Cowboys' 23-year-old first-round pick in as the full-time starter just yet.
"(Greg Ellis) is our starting outside 'backer," said new head coach Wade Phillips after the morning practice out here at Valley Ranch. Phillips did say later that every position on the team was up for grabs, though the rookie generally has to beat out the veteran for a starting job.
"I'm loving the possibility of starting," Spencer said. "Having a little competition is good, it builds character. I did a lot of learning out there today. I was basically doing a lot of rushing stuff."
The incumbent Ellis spent the morning practice continuing to rehab the surgically-repaired Achilles tendon he tore last year, and while Phillips said the team hopes Ellis can be back in time for training camp, it certainly won't hurt Spencer to run with the first team in the meantime.
"Spencer did some good things," Phillips said. "He has some technique things that we can help him with. I was pleased with him, with his natural ability, just to see the stuff we saw him do naturally in college."
That natural ability helped Spencer register 10½ sacks while piling up 26½ tackles for loss in his senior season at Purdue while playing defensive end in a 4-3 alignment. He also forced five fumbles and batted down six passes in 2006, and was a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year Award.
While Greg Ellis seemed nervous about switching from defensive end to linebacker this time last year, Spencer says he is open to change.
"That's what I'm just working on now is learning the defense as fast as I can," he said. "The more I do it, the better I become at it."
And whether it's Ellis or Spencer lining up with the A-team in games, Phillips said the ultimate goal will be the same: More pressure.
"The more pressure you get, the better your secondary gets," he said
Phillips also said the team would use outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware as a pass rusher more in 2007.
Julius Back In Town
Phillips made a point to stick up for running back Julius Jones during his Saturday press conference after the running back said he felt he ran "like a robot" at times last season.
"I like Julius as a running back," Phillips said. "He's been productive here and I think he will continue to be. We're gonna get him in situations where we think we can best utilize him. He's a good screen-runner; he's a good draw-runner; he's a good stretch, outside-runner that can cut. Those are the situations we would like to get him in.
Jones broke the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time in his career in 2006, finishing the regular season with 1,084 yards on 267 carries, good for a 4.1-yards-per-carry average.
In six of the team's final eight games, though, Jones failed to rush for even 50 yards, as Marion Barber began to carry more of the load. Phillips said Jones has been the only player not to participate in the team's off-season conditioning program this spring, choosing instead to work out in Arizona.
"I haven't asked him about his plans (for the remainder of the offseason) - I encourage guys to be here," Phillips. "I just like them being around each other."
But evidently Jones knew something about the new offense, Phillips saying his running back already knew the protections, so "he had to study them."
During the open locker room portion of Saturday's mini-camp, third-year defensive end Marcus Spears told fellow-end Chris Canty the Wade Phillips defense allows you to mess up and still make a play.
That might be just what Spears needed - whether through mental mistakes or poor technique, the former first-round pick hasn't made much of an impact in his first two NFL seasons. But that could be about to change.
"Marcus was markedly better today, from what I saw on tape," Phillips said. "Marcus made several good plays today. I didn't see him make as many during the season."
Phillips also suggested the scheme the Cowboys ran up front the last couple of years might not have been conducive to Spears' game.
"Some coaches coach the scheme more than they coach the players," Phillips said. "Some coaches are hard-headed about that. Others adjust."
The new coach was quick to point out he wasn't commenting on the previous regime, but players sometimes have a point when they complain they were misused.
"We're gonna try to get our best players in position to make plays. That's what coaching is: being able to help players utilize their talents."
Saturday's 7-on-7 and team drills provided the opportunity to see the early pecking order at safety, a position most troubling to the Cowboys the last two seasons.
Free-agent acquisition Ken Hamlin ran with the first team, lining up at free safety opposite Roy Williams. While Williams covered backs and tight ends and played closer to the line of scrimmage, Hamlin looked to be more of a centerfielder and appeared rangy enough to help out cornerbacks on deep balls on the sideline.
"I've been here in the off-season working out with these guys everyday; now we're just trying to feel each other out," said the four-year veteran Hamlin. "We're getting used to each other and trying to get to have some trust in each other."
The 6-2, 209-pound Hamlin played in 54 games for Seattle after the Seahawks selected him out of Arkansas in the second round of the 2003 draft. He had 297 tackles and eight interceptions as a Seahawk, missing more than half the 2005 season after suffering a serious head injury in a off-field altercation.
Keith Davis and Pat Watkins, who split time at free safety last season, both worked with the second-team defense.
After the Tony Romo-botched hold debacle in Seattle on Jan. 6, it became readily apparent the Cowboys were on the lookout for a new holder on placekicks. Romo was the team's starting quarterback now, after all.
Now punter Mat McBriar seems to be getting the first crack at replacing Romo. McBriar worked with kickers Martin Gramatica and rookie Nick Folk in Saturday's morning practice, taking snaps from L.P. Ladouceur.
McBriar began his Cowboys career as the holder, but was replaced by Bill Parcells after just one mistake against Minnesota in the 2004 season-opener.
"I've definitely got my hand up, to hold," McBriar said. "I've only got limited experience in games, but it's something I want to do - something I work on with the kickers. It looks like I'm getting a fair shot at it.
McBriar notched his first Pro Bowl appearance last season, averaging 48.2-yards per punt. After re-signing with the Cowboys in the off-season, a pay raise could mean more responsibilities for the Aussie.
"It's an important job - for Martin and Nick," McBriar said. "They need a good holder. I want to be the best holder I can be for them, as well as for the team."
The Cowboys also might look at backup quarterback Brad Johnson as a potential holder, too.
The only thing that seems certain is that Romo won't be holding, and he acknowledged that Saturday when asked he would be holding this year. Romo said he wasn't sure, but knew it wouldn't be him.
And evidently he's right, since Phillips referred to him Saturday as "the former holder."
The four-year old indoor practice facility at Valley Ranch came in handy during Saturday's afternoon practice, when a sudden hail-and-thunderstorm sprung up, moving the remainder of the workout indoors . . . Fourth-round pick Isaiah Stanback, who did not participate in the morning practice, fielded punts from free-agent punter Sam Paulescu inside the bubble and seemed to be moving well enough despite Lisfranc surgery . . . Brad Johnson struggled with throws during both practices, bouncing several balls at his receiver's feet . . . In years past, DeMarcus Ware lined up at right outside linebacker exclusively, but Saturday he and Spencer flip-flopped often, seemingly flipping from strong side to weak side . . . Bobby Carpenter and Kevin Burnett, both of whom played mostly outside last year, were the middle linebackers on the second-team defense . . . The Cowboys brought in two rookie free agents on workout basis for the mini-camp, including Tarleton State quarterback Richard Bartel and TCU linebacker Eric Buchanan.