Air Apparent?

DALLAS - When Arizona's Sean Morey broke Mat McBriar's foot while blocking a punt that was returned for the game-winning touchdown in the Cardinals' Oct. 12 victory over the Cowboys, the future of one of the most reliable Dallas players suddenly was in doubt.

McBriar is still young (29), and all reports suggest that his injury is healed and he is expected to be ready for the team's veteran mini-camp in May. But just like a pitcher who suffers an injury to his throwing shoulder or a violinist who breaks the fingers on his left hand, the chance remains that he might not return to his former form after returning from the injury.

The Cowboys clearly hope McBriar returns, with three years left on a five-year, $8.5 million contract. But if he can't perform at the standard he has set for himself through the first part of his career, his team might have found a suitable replacement.

Dallas was among six teams represented Thursday at nearby SMU's Pro Day, and the Mustangs feature one of the nation's best punters in Thomas Morstead. The former All-Conference USA honoree averaged 41.8 yards on 59 punts as a senior, and had 20 downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He also kicked field goals for the Ponies, connecting on 11-of-15 (73.3 percent), including 5-of-6 from beyond 40 yards.

Morstead makes a mockery of the stereotypes usually associated with punters, football's equivalent of the class nerd with tape on his glasses. At SMU's Pro Day, he measured in at 6-foot-4 3/8 and 226 chiseled pounds. He also did 21 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press. For comparison, that's two more than Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith, who began the season as one of the odds-on favorites to be among the top five players picked in April's NFL Draft, if not the first overall selection. Only one of eight players who worked out for NFL scouts Thursday, linebacker Will Bonilla, had more (25).

After the players completed their jumps, bench press, sprints and shuttle drills, Morstead was asked to kick for the visiting scouts. High winds made conditions anything but ideal, which was reflected in Morstead's punts: with the winds at his back, he uncorked a series of high missles, many of which exceeded 60 yards, and at least two of which traveled more than 70. When facing into the gusting wind, Morstead aimed lower to cut through the wind, with mixed results. Some hung up and died, while others carried out of bounds.

Morstead is something of a physical freak, at least for his position. As a freshman out of Pearland, Texas, near Houston, he was a gangly no-name who couldn't crack the Ponies' lineup. But he took up residence in the SMU weight room, and spent summer afternoons running up and down the grass hill at the south end of SMU's Gerald J. Ford Stadium while wearing a lead vest. At first glance, he looks more like an outside linebacker than a punter. As a junior, he led Conference USA and was ninth in the nation with an average of 44.6 yards on his booming, McBriar-esque punts.

But Morstead is more than a loose cannon with an explosive leg. He spent his college career constantly tweaking his mechanics and the angle at which he drops the ball toward his foot, and learned to launch high spirals that often corkscrew to a stop deep in opposing territory.

The Washington Redskins were the only NFL team to draft a punter last season, when they plucked Ray Guy Award winner Durant Brooks out of Georgia Tech, and his stint in Washington was short. The Redskins released him when he was unable to transform his line-drive punts into the high-arching style preferred by NFL special teams coaches who covet hang time as much as distance to allow coverage units ample time to get downfield. Morstead's punts often are so high they appear able to bring down rain, but after the Brooks experiment in Washington, there are many who think no team will draft a punter this season, no matter how talented he might be.

If he doesn't get drafted, Morstead surely will end up in some team's mini-camp on a free agent trial basis. If he ends up with the Cowboys, he'll be in a somewhat awkward position, as he has met McBriar and considers the Cowboys' punter something of a mentor. Equally awkward will be the SMU coaches, most of whom coached McBriar at Hawaii when June Jones was the Warriors' head coach.

The other SMU players who worked out for NFL scouts:

• Bonilla (5-10 1/2, 213, 4.52 40-yard dash) – A tough, smart player who had 49 tackles and a sack for SMU despite missing three games with a hamstring injury, Bonilla has worked out for two Canadian Football League Teams: the Montreal Alouettes worked him out as a linebacker, while the Edmonton Eskimos are considering him as a strong safety, the position he played in his first (redshirt) year at SMU and in high school.

• Tight end Vincent Chase (6-4 ½, 266, 4.9) – One of the most heralded tight end recruits in the nation when he came out of high school, Chase served mostly as a blocker at SMU, even bulking up to nearly 290 and starting at right tackle as a senior. Although not a frequent target in the passing game and lacking elite speed for the position, Chase has decent hands and is a crushing blocker.

• Return specialist/running back Jessie Henderson (5-6 ½, 170, 4.5) – Unlike many small players who make their contributions in the return game, Henderson is not the traditional jitterbug-style runner. Instead, he is more of a straight-ahead sprinter who looks for a gap through which to burst.

• Running back Andrew McKinney (6-3, 254) – Huge and powerful, McKinney was his team's leading rusher as a senior (195 yards), albeit in an offense that lives and dies with the passing game. McKinney was a special teams terror at SMU, often being the first player downfield despite weighing as much as 270 pounds and blowing up the opposing team's blocking wedge or making often-vicious tackles.

• Deep snapper Jackson Taylor (6-2 ½, 253).

• Tight end Tommy Poynter (6-3 ¼, 252) – A former walk-on who ended up starting at both guard and tackle at SMU, Poynter is a tough blocker who dropped more than 20 pounds in an effort to switch to tight end.

• Wide receiver Bobby Chase (6-2 ¾, 211, 4.6) – Vincent's older brother has played Arena League football since finishing his senior year (in 2006). What he lacks in top-end speed, he makes up for with extraordinary strength and reliable hands. He runs good routes and is very good at using his body to shield the ball from defenders.

Bobby Chase caught the game-winning touchdown in a last-second win over UAB in his senior year that can be seen here in a clip that includes Chase getting congratulations from his brother and SMU defensive end (and current Cowboys linebacker) Justin Rogers, and one of the most entertaining radio calls in recent memory: LINK

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