Mini-Camp Tibits & Insider Notes

IRVING, Tex. - The Dallas Cowboys gathered Tuesday for the first practice of mini-camp — which differs from the OTAs in recent weeks only in the sense that attendance at mini-camp is required — and for the second time in as many weeks, the highlight of the day took place after practice.

• A week ago, owner Jerry Jones awkwardly hinted at the fact that offensive line coach Bill Callahan, not head coach Jason Garrett, would call the team's offensive plays in 2013. Armed with Jones' pseudo-confession, reporters swarmed Callahan, who awkwardly confirmed what Jones had almost said. Shortly thereafter, Garrett deflected questions about the situation, apparently caught off-guard by the topic.

At Tuesday's post-practice press conference, a more composed Garrett fielded similar questions about how the decision was made ("collectively") and when ("months ago"), insisting that having a designated offensive coordinator to call the plays was the way most teams structure their coaching staffs and that there's a lot of logic to that structure. He referred to Callahan's role in 2013 as "acting offensive coordinator" and said that while he doesn't like the term "veto power," he, as head coach, would retain the ability to overrule Callahan on play calls. He called last week's confusion/tension a result of communication that "could have been cleaner, and I take full responsibility for that."

• Among those who sat out with injuries or working with trainers on rehabilitation assignments: QB Tony Romo, WR Tim Benford, OT Jermey Parnell, RB Joseph Randle, DE Monte Taylor, LB Alex Albright, WR Danny Coale and S Danny McCray.

DT Jay Ratliff and DE DeMarcus Ware, who sat out of recent OTAs, were back on the field with the defense.

• A lot could change, of course, between now and the start of the season, but throughout the OTAs and Tuesday's mini-camp, it appears that Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and free agent signee Justin Durant have the inside track on the starting linebacker positions. But when the team went "live" (almost) in team (11 on 11) drills and shifted from the 4-3 alignment that new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has installed as his base alignment to a 4-2 (four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs) in order to add a defensive back for pass defense, Lee and Carter left the field, giving way to a lineup that featured Durant and Ernie Sims.

• The obvious leader of the Dallas rushing game is RB DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys' leading rusher in 2012 with 663 rushing yards despite missing six games because of injuries. He sat out much of the recent OTAs but is taking part in all individual and team drills, and looks like he is getting back the acceleration that allows him to burst through the line of scrimmage. He isn't back to 100 percent yet, but he seems to be cutting well off both feet maintaining his speed and balance while changing directions.

• Ever since the draft in April — or at least since Felix Jones signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles — many have assumed that RB Joseph Randle, the team's fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, would become Murray's understudy right away. That might still happen, but it is far from a foregone conclusion. Teammates and coaches are very impressed with RB Lance Dunbar, the North Texas product who made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Randle has begun learning the offense in meetings and by watching practice, but he has yet to practice with his new team, going through conditioning and rehab drills on the side with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb. Dunbar, meanwhile, is stronger than he was a year ago and running with more confidence now that he has a year in the system under his belt. Maybe Randle will end up taking the backup running back position, but Dunbar doesn't appear interested in giving up the job without a fight.

• Along those same lines, many have assumed that rookie WR Terrance Williams will be the team's third receiver after starters Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. But don't discount the possibility of Dwayne Harris earning the third spot in the rotation. Harris was largely a return specialist when he first came to the team, with a roster spot so tenuous that he even got cut and re-signed at one point. But while he improved on special teams — he had 22 of the Cowboys' 34 punt returns in 2012 — he also developed into a more valuable receiver, initially in the slot but also earning more trust from Romo and the coaches when he filled in when Austin was injured.

• Harris got hurt near the end of Tuesday's session when he fell while blocking on a play during team (11 on 11) drills. Team trainers appeared to be looking at Harris' right knee, and Harris sat out the remaining drills. After practice, Garrett didn't elaborate on the injury, saying the team would have an update in a day or two.

TE Jason Witten, entering his 11th season with the Cowboys, remains among the best tight ends in the game, and it's no accident. He's big, strong and smart, of course, but he also is one of the team's hardest workers. A veteran with his résumé could be excused for down-shifting a little every now and then during drills early in the offseason, but Witten continues to run every play as if his roster spot is on the line. He regularly dusted linebackers and safeties who tried to stay with him in passing drills. S Matt Johnson, who has been hailed for his athletic ability and pass defense, bit so hard on a pair of Witten fakes that he ended up spinning away from where the ball was thrown, allowing Witten to make an easy grab and stroll toward the end zone.

• Mini-camp drills are important for every player whose spot on the roster isn't a sure thing, and it can help players to listen to coaches who coach other positions, or even on the other side of the ball. For example, during "team" (11 on 11) drills, defensive coaches constantly urge their players to stay with a play and try to strip the ball. Rookie LB DeVonte Holloman has paid attention. He created numerous takeaways during OTAs in recent weeks, and on the first day of mini-camp, he was at it again. TE Dante Rosario caught a short pass in the flat, and when he got near the sideline, he got a little casual with the ball, allowing Holloman to chase him down, reach around his back and pop the ball free. While Rosario looked around for the ball, Holloman already had pounced on it — right in front of two assistant coaches. It was a little play in one drill, but it's the kind of play that gets a player (or both players) noticed by the coaching staff.

• During special teams drills, four players fielded punts from P Chris Jones: CB B.W. Webb, WR Anthony Amos, WR Cole Beasley and WR Dwayne Harris. All but Amos fielded each punt cleanly; Amos had one drop.

• Perhaps the nicest pass play of the day came in seven-on-seven drills, when QB Kyle Orton lofted a perfect 30-yard pass over the outside shoulder of WR Dez Bryant, who made the catch in front of CB Brandon Carr.

CB Sterling Moore mimicked Bryant to turn in arguably the best defensive play of the day, when he made an over-the-shoulder interception of a deep throw by QB Nick Stephens.

• Moore's catch was so similar to Bryant's it would have been understandable if observers thought the same player made both plays. Bryant obviously is the more heralded player, but both are exceptional athletes, tough and extremely competitive, so it wasn't a great shock when he and Moore exchanged words after going head-to-head on a passing drill (Moore knocked the pass away). The two went nose-to-nose for a minute of healthy trash talk, but it appeared there was no animosity, as both walked away laughing.

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