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Offseason | 2024

Cowboys' D-line coach brings 'raging' mindset in '24


FRISCO, Texas — Mike Zimmer isn't the only newly-added defensive coach who has a fire in his belly that will readily turn him into Johnny Blaze should the Dallas Cowboys begin making mistakes in games that cost them wins. Jeff Zgonina, the team's new defensive line coach, is that and arguably more — fully prepared to transform into Hulk at a moment's notice.

Any lineman not executing to the new standard will, well, not like Zgonina when he's angry.

It sets the stage for what should be a perfect balance with Greg Ellis, his assistant defensive line coach and former Pro Bowl edge rusher for the Cowboys.

"I was fortunate the last two years in Washington to work with Ryan Kerrigan — another great former defensive lineman," said Zgonina. "I love working with ex-players. I love being an ex-player. It's gonna be good, the yin and the yang. He's more mild and I'm a little more of a loose cannon, they say. But it works. It works.

"Just like Ryan — he didn't say much. He was the calming soul while I was the raging lunatic."

With voluntary OTAs set to begin this week, the Cowboys have only, thus far, gone through voluntary conditioning and rookie minicamp, but that's already been enough for players to catch wrath from Zgonina, a former defensive tackle whose NFL career spanned 17 seasons and includes a Super Bowl ring.

He's wasting no time whatsoever getting his messaging across to Cowboys' players.

"Yes," he said when asked if there has been a singular moment already that's driven him to aggressive correction. "Every day. Every five minutes, if not more. They've been warned."

What, so far, has bothered him the most in defensive line practices, though?

"Everything," he said.

Zgonina went on to praise players like four-time Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, but his focus will primarily, though not entirely, be on developing/resetting former first-round pick Mazi Smith and helping other defensive tackles such as Osa Odighizuwa reach higher heights, while Ellis keys in on Lawrence, Micah Parsons and younger edge rushers like Sam Williams and rookie second-round pick Marshawn Kneeland.

Considering the Commanders' success on the defensive interior under Zgonina — e.g., Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen — and an NFL coaching resume that includes the San Francisco 49ers defensive line (2017-2019) he's a promising addition to Zimmer's staff, to say the least.

"I think it's a huge benefit," said Ellis of what his tandem with Zgonina means for the Cowboys' D-line in 2024. "… He's the lead one, and I'm the assistant to him. I think it's a tremendous blessing. We can tell you the play that Zim has for you, but we can also tell you little techniques that will make you productive at executing [it]."

This summer will see Zgonina's group line up daily against an offensive line that features three rookies — first-round pick Tyler Guyton at left tackle, third-round pick Cooper Beebe at center and seventh-round pick Nathan Thomas at guard — as the first-year players get thrown right into the fire in OTAs, mandatory minicamp and then training camp in late July.

They'll get no sympathy whatsoever from Zgonina, though.

Literally, none.

"I don't care about the rookies [on the offensive line]," he said matter-of-factly. "I don't care about anybody on the O-line. I'm the D-line coach. [Offensive line coach Mike Solari] is a hell of a football coach. I've competed against him.

"And every time I've played against him — be it in Seattle and here — I tell my guys it's personal for me, going against Solari because he's a hell of a football coach."

There's one mission and one mission only for Zgonina, and that's for his players to see red on every rep, even if it's navy blue and white lined up across from them.

"My guys are gonna go out there every day, and I don't care who lines up in front of them, they're gonna whoop their ass," he said. "I know they're all teammates but we've gotta get them ready and they've gotta get us ready."

Then again, maybe he doesn't have to transform from Bruce Banner at all.

Maybe that's Zgonina's secret, Captain:

He's always angry.

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