Mini-Camp Observations

SilverStarDigest writer Steve Lansdale has the absolute latest from Valley Ranch this past weekend. News, notes, and quotes that you can't get anywhere else are contained inside our exclusive look at the Dallas Cowboys second mini-camp of the offseason!

Some of the sights and sounds from the Cowboys' mini-camp being held this week at Valley Ranch:

Several famous faces were present when the Cowboys opened mini-camp this weekend. Among the luminaries catching an early glimpse of the team: announcer Pat Summerall (having recovered from his April liver transplant), Cowboys architect Gil Brandt, Dallas Stars assistant coach Rick Wilson, former Cowboys RB (and current consultant) Calvin Hill and Texas Tech men's basketball head coach Bobby Knight.

Much was made over the summer about the standoff between head coach Bill Parcells and guard Larry Allen over Allen's offseason strength and conditioning regimen, and the fact that he wasn't at Valley Ranch working out with his teammates. Allen stuck to his own offseason plan of power lifting before showing up recently in the last weeks prior to mini-camp to work out with the team. Whatever his method, it seemed to work. Allen, who's been bothered in recent seasons by an assortment of nagging injuries, looks significantly lighter than he did at the end of last season -- perhaps closer to the 335 pounds at which he's listed on the team roster -- and moved very well in early camp drills. He got up out of his stance quickly and showed good footwork and acceleration on pulling drills. He also showed surprisingly quick feet in the offensive line agility drills.

Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson already is making an impression on his teammates … with his hands and with his mouth. Everyone knew he could catch, but he quickly has become the most vocal presence in the lockerroom and on the field. During a break between drills, Johnson had all of the team's receivers howling with laughter at his endless array of jokes and stories, and one teammate said Johnson has surpassed even new defensive end Marcellus Wiley -- a renowned extrovert in his own right -- as the loudest of the Cowboys. Safety Darren Woodson said the presence of Johnson and Wiley means the return of "some of the wildness we had with Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders and Nate Newton."

Two Cowboys earned a measure of fame last year for their atypical hairstyles. Wide receiver Terry Glenn showed up last year sporting a longer look that since has grown into a full ponytail, while tight end sported a shag that something of a hybrid between that of a WWF castoff and a wannabe hard rocker. This year's most conspicuous dome belongs to tight end James Whalen, who showed up at mini-camp with his scalp cleanly shaven. With four years of NFL experience under his belt, Whalen can't chalk up his new look to playful hazing teams often inflict upon rookies. "I just got bored one night," Whalen said. He also shaved his head before realizing that team headshots were being taken over the next couple of days. Oops.

As physical as the NFL is, it's rare for players to start and play in every game. Yet the three players who might well be the starting trio of linebackers this year for Dallas all did exactly that in 2003. Running with the first-team defense were Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley, who started every game last year for the Cowboys, and Al Singleton, who started every game in 2003 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It was a little odd to see No. 21 racing around again on the practice field at Valley Ranch. No, Deion Sanders wasn't jumping on with a team that has a high national exposure quotient and a chance to make a playoff run. This year, No. 21 belongs to rookie running back Julius Jones, and he looked very good this weekend. The skeptics at draft time who said he's just too small haven't seen him up close -- Jones is thickly muscled and has tremendous power in his lower body. He also is faster than advertised, frequently getting into the secondary and outrunning defensive backs this weekend. Another difference: he seems to like contact. Even without pads, he blasted through a pile of players many times this weekend before bursting out the other side.

There also is a locker labeled "D. SANDERS" - for offensive tackle Darrick Sanders, who also isn't likely to be mistaken for the former Atlanta Falcon/San Francisco 49er/Cowboy/Washington Redskin. Darrick Sanders is a 6-foot-4, 312-pound offensive tackle trying to make the squad as a rookie free agent out of Arkansas-Monticello.

Players aren't the only ones who need to be ready when they arrive for mini-camps. Just 40 minutes into the first practice Saturday, offensive line coach George Warhop blew out his voice. Reduced to a hoarse whisper, the second-year assistant had to run to each player to make his instructions audible. (His voice returned by Sunday morning's practice.)

Two players who missed the 2003 season with injuries -- cornerback Donald Mitchell and center Al Johnson -- showed no ill effects in their first workouts with the team. Mitchell missed last season (his first after signing as a free agent with the Cowboys following four years with the Tennessee Titans) with posterior tibia tendinitis in his left ankle, but he ran well with the receivers in drills, knocking down numerous passes and stepping up on a quick "out" route to make an interception. Johnson, who sat out his rookie season after blowing out his right knee, showed good quickness and movement, taking part in all offensive line drills. Johnson ices his knee after practice, but reported no significant pain and said he intends to take part in the full slate of drills throughout mini-camp.

Just as many players hope to increase their chances of making the team by contributing on special teams, two players whose primary occupation is on special teams hope to expand their range of talents to increase their chances. Matt McBriar (from the University of Hawaii) and Ryan Flinn (of Central Florida) are battling for the punting job, but each is getting extensive work as a holder, spending nearly an hour Saturday (McBriar) and Sunday (Flinn) fielding snaps from special teams coach Steve Hoffman and getting the ball down in place for kicks by placekicker Billy Cundiff.

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