OXNARD, Calif. – When the Cowboys arrived at training camp nearly two weeks ago, the center position was hardly a concern.
Not only did they have a young starter in Phil Costa entering his second full season at center, but they had two second-year backups that have versatility to play guard.
But a high-ankle sprain to Bill Nagy, coupled with a nagging ankle injury for Kevin Kowalski that got worse, and suddenly the center spot has the Cowboys scratching their heads as they prepare to start the preseason Monday night in Oakland.
Do they go get a veteran center and crowd the position even more, or simply try to make do and piece the position together until either one of the young guys catches on or the injured players return.
For now, it sounds like the Cowboys are going with Option No. 2. But don't think they haven't done their due diligence with the first option as well.
"Trust me, we've scoured the short lists," head coach Jason Garrett said in regards to free-agent center. "We've talked to different agents about trying to address that. Right now, we feel like the best way to address it is with the guys we have in house. If someone comes available that is attractive to us, we'll certainly address it that way."
For now, the Cowboys are using the players on the roster to patch up the center spot, particularly with the backup spots.
Guards David Arkin and Harland Gunn have worked at center in practice and on Thursday, tackle/guard Pat McQuistan took a few snaps before practice.
Costa isn't expected to have much competition now for the starting job, but don't be surprised if the Cowboys at least explore the option of using Mackenzy Bernadeau at center, at least as a backup.
While he on Thursday was practicing for the first time since joining the Cowboys, Bernadeau might be an option down the line. For now, he's a guard and that's where the focus will remain.
"We've just got to see him play guard first," Garrett said. "That's where he's most comfortable. That's one of the things that we liked about him when we signed him in free agency was his position flex. He has played center, had the ball in his hands before, so that's a positive thing. But right now we just want to see him break the huddle and play some football first and foremost, and hopefully he'll function in practice and keep growing day-by-day."
In the last few days, there have been several poor snaps, with botched shotguns and quarterback-center exchanges. Garrett, a former quarterback in his own right, said most of the center issues this team has stem from injury.
"We felt very good about our center, our backup center, our third center, the guys who can play both center and guard going into training camp – we just had a rash of injuries," Garrett said. "So you try to adjust as best as you can. Arkin's done a nice job. He hasn't snapped before in his life and he's just taking snaps at guard and then he goes over and he's trying to learn to play center. We're trying to cross-train some other guys. It's part of what you go through when you have a rash of injuries at a particular position. You just try to scramble a little bit and come up with a way to handle it."
Players on the street include former Cowboys Pro Bowler Andre Gurode, along with other vets Jeff Faine, Jason Brown and Jamaal Jackson.
But most of those guys would likely come in looking to start. The Cowboys have that guy in Costa, whom the coaches and scouts will say has improved tremendously over the offseason.
Costa said his on-field communication with the starting quarterback has been one of the most important aspects he's tried to improve this year.
"Being on the same page with Tony is really important, making the calls and helping him out in that respect is important," Costa said. "I've been working on the techniques and that makes a big difference."
Garrett said he's seen a different player in Costa this year.
"We have more confidence in him. He's played center for us in games, and for the most part he's done a pretty decent job," Garrett said. "He's had some hiccups over the last year or so with that as well. When you have the ball in your hands it's a big responsibility. There's a reason why centers typically are among the smartest guys up on the offensive line because they can handle some of that responsibility, intellectually and also the responsibility that comes with having the ball in your hands. So we're always working on it, we're always emphasizing it to our team. We've just got to do it better."