With three proven ball carriers in Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, Dallas boasts one of the best — if not the best trios of runners in the entire NFL.
At the ripe old age of 26, Barber is the old man of the group, making the backfield hardly conducive for a newcomer trying to crack the rotation. But that's exactly the situation in which Keon Lattimore finds himself. Lattimore tried out last year, and after getting waived, was picked up and added to the practice squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Now back with the Cowboys, Lattimore admits he doesn't know exactly what it will take to earn a roster spot: his much-improved running ability, his ability to catch passes out of the backfield, an injury to one of the team's "three-headed running monster" backfield or his efforts on special teams.
"I have no idea, but when you're the last guy, you always want to try to get in, on special teams if you have to," he said. "I just want to go out here, take it one day at a time, one practice at a time and one play at a time. I'm doing a lot better than I did last year — I'm getting a lot of compliments about it. I take heed to it, but I don't let it go to my head. I just come out here and continue to work hard. Whatever happens — it's going to happen. My thing is, I pray every day, and I can't worry about the things I can't control, so I've just got to do what I do, and worry about the things I can control."
After last season, Lattimore trained with his older brother, Baltimore Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis, correcting an errant judgement he made a year ago that he needed to bulk up from his days as a star running back at the University of Maryland.
"Actually, I'm smaller now," Lattimore said. "I was about 230 then, and now I'm 212, 213. I'm leaner. I changed up a lot in the offseason, the way work out and my eating habits. Last year, at 230, I wasn't as quick as I am now. In college, I was about 215, and I was really explosive, but I put a lot of weight on coming into the league, thinking I need to be bigger, stronger … but what I realized is that to be stronger, you don't have to be bigger. You can actually be lighter, and I feel a lot better."
Lattimore said his new physique didn't go unnoticed by the Dallas coaches when he returned for mini-camps and OTAs this summer.
"Of course," he said, when asked whether the coaches had noticed his sleeker frame. "When I first got to mini-camp, they were like, ‘man, you look like night and day from last year. Your frame looks better, you're quicker, you're faster. I think the weight I added last year came along with a confidence problem, because I couldn't do certain things last year at 230. Like on the outside sweep — I couldn't really turn the corner the way I wanted to.
"So I worked out with my older brother, Ray, this offseason. I put in a lot of work. He explained to me that what you put into it is what you're going to get out of it, so I put a lot of hard work into it, I lost 15-plus pounds, and I'm having a great camp thus far. I'm just going to keep it up, and hopefully something happens for me."
The leaner, faster Lattimore was invited to try out again for the Cowboys almost immediately after April's NFL Draft.
"It was a funny story, because I was actually watching Jerry Jones on ESPN after the draft, and they asked him, ‘Jerry, how do you feel about your draft?' " Lattimore said. "He was happy with the draft, and the way it went. Then they asked him, ‘when are you going to start signing free agents?' He said ‘right now' … and I got a call two hours later, and they said they wanted to sign me back."
Dallas wasn't the only team that called, Lattimore said, but the quickness with which he got his call from the Cowboys weighed heavily in his decision.
"A couple of teams called," he said, "but my thing was, Dallas did it the fastest. They got it done fast, and by the time the other teams called, it was too late."
How many running backs the Cowboys will carry in 2009 is unclear, but Barber, Jones and Choice are locks to make the team. Lattimore said that as a competitor, it bothers him a little that people refer to those as "the big three," but said his friendship with the trio eliminates any jealousy that might otherwise exist.
"As a running back, it bothers you, but not in a negative way," he said. "It's really a positive thing, actually. I'm very close with those guys, and we compete. They push me, and I push them. You've got to understand that the league is a business, and the sooner you understand that, the better off you will be. So it's not like I come out here and pout. It's a business — they pay those guys top dollars, and they're going to see what they can do first. My thing is, I just want to get in where I fit in. If I can do anything to help this team out, I'm going to do it."
One way he can help — and likely his best chance to stick on the roster — is if he shines on special teams.
"I played as a true freshman at Maryland, on two or three special teams, but after that, I kind of stepped into the starting lineup, so they pulled me off of them," he said. "Here in camp, I'm on a couple of them, but in my position, you've got to pretty much know all of them. I think when you're in my position, and you've got other guys who are proven in front of you, that's what you're going to have to do to stick around, and I feel great about the job that I've been doing on special teams."
If Dallas carries just four running backs, the fourth likely will be one of the bigger blocking backs, like Deon Anderson or Julius Croslin. But if his work on special teams convinces the coaches that they need to figure out how to keep Lattimore, he might get squeezed out of Dallas in a numbers crunch. Either way, he remains eternally optimistic and said he chose the right team when he re-signed with the Cowboys this summer.
"I know I've got the talent to play in this league, and something's going to work out for me. When it (does), I'm not looking back. When I get the opportunity, I'm not looking back."
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