There's no question that Jay Ratliff is among the elite nose tackles in the NFL. But at a position so physically demanding, teams have to have two players, at least, who can man the middle of the defensive line. A year ago, Tank Johnson backed up Ratliff after losing the starting job, meaning finding a second nose tackle was a priority heading into this summer's training camp in San Antonio.
After a couple weeks of camp, it looks likely — very likely — that the Cowboys' second player at the position will be Junior Siavii. The 30-year-old was in training camp last year, but got cut when he was "caught up in a numbers game." Prior to that, he spent a couple of seasons in Kansas City after the Chiefs made him a second-round pick out of Oregon.
Siavii had chances to play elsewhere this year. After getting waived by Dallas last summer, he had tryouts with a number of NFL teams, including a late-season audition for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"When they were going to the playoffs, they said they were going to let me know," Siavii said. "About three weeks before the playoffs, they were interested, and I went there and I got to meet Troy (Polamalu) and all the other Samoans on their team. I wanted to be there, because I knew they were going to the playoffs and had a chance to go to the Super Bowl. But at the end of the day, their big nose tackle (Casey Hampton) was hurt, but he stuck with it. I don't wish nothing bad for nobody. To get a job there, somebody had to get hurt, and I don't want to get a job that way. I want to fight for a job, like I'm fighting for it right now."
If Siavii is fighting for a job now, he appears to be winning the fight.
"I know more," he said when asked how he's different this summer than last year at this time. "I know my plays, and I'm trying to get it locked down to where I don't think about anything — I just play. My technique is getting better, working with Coach (Todd Grantham). I tell you, (Grantham) is the best D-line coach I've ever had, and most of the other D-linemen would say the same thing. He's different in every way. It's the little things, things that other coaches forget to put out there.
"I don't know. I wish I could say ‘I got better this year, and this is the reason why,' but I do know that I'm better this year. More than anything, I think it's just a matter of working hard and keeping the dream alive."
That dream started in Pago Pago, in American Samoa. Siavii came to the United States to go to college at Oregon, and to play football. Now closing in on a spot on the Dallas defensive line, Siavii is a very different player than Ratliff. He's not as quick as Ratliff, but 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, he's bigger and stronger. If it's possible to look lean at 320 pounds, he does. His shoulders are broad, and his long arms hide the sheer mass he carries on his frame. He looks more like a power forward than an interior lineman.
"The bad thing I did last year was I dropped weight, and I didn't want to lift weights a lot," Siavii said. "This year, I'm staying in the weight room more. Even though I'm banged up from out here, I go in the weight room after practice and get my work in. I feel strong. Coming out here and going against ‘Dre' (Andre Gurode) and all the big boys — it's a headache. We're the big boys — we've got to bang with everybody."
His bulk, power and understanding of the defense have impressed teammates.
"The thing about Jay is he gets off the ball, and his biggest attribute is movement," linebacker Bradie James said. "But Junior, he holds two guys. Jay takes up two guys in a different way. Junior can hold up two guys at the line of scrimmage. Jay can get in the backfield so fast (the other team has) to put two guys on him. The thing is Junior isn't trying to play like Jay — he's playing like Junior. He's technically sound, and he's been impressive. I was in camp with him last year, and I can tell the difference. He's definitely doing a better job, because I'm right behind him. I can see him on every play.
"The way Junior has stepped up his game, understanding what we need him to do — he's not trying to play like anybody else. He knows the defense, and he knows how to play in this defense."
New defensive end Igor Olshansky knows Siavii better than anyone on the Dallas roster; the two were teammates at Oregon.
"He brings a lot of talent and a lot of potential to the field, and he's a very strong, explosive, big talented man," Olshansky said. "‘Rat' — he's phenomenal at what he does. I've never been around a defensive lineman that's better than him, for what he does, his ability to disrupt things in the backfield. He's a different flavor from what I've seen in San Diego with Jamal (Williams). Jamal really ate up a lot of blocks, and basically just picked up the center and threw him into the backfield every time, and I think Junior has that kind of capability."
Siavii said that while he might be in a good position to make the Cowboys' roster — he has been working with the second-team defensive line since camp opened last week — he can't afford to get complacent.
"I don't want to give the coaches any doubts about whether I know my playbook and know the defense," he said. "I watch the other D-linemen … Igor, Rat … and every guy I watch, I try to take something from them, to see if I can do it the way they do it. It's a learning experience for me.
"I'm not looking at it like I've made the team — not at all. I'm running with the second team now, but I'm not going to sit here and say I've made the team yet — I haven't made anything. I'm going to keep working. I know I'm going to be a backup guy — I'm not going to take Rat's job. But I'm going to try, when Rat takes his break, to make the coaches confident with me in there."
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