IRVING, Texas –Since Sean Lissemore arrived in Dallas, he's been compared to Jay Ratliff, another seventh-round defensive lineman with a high motor who developed into a trusted player.
Ratliff got his big break when veteran nose tackle Jason Ferguson went down early in 2007, and there's probably a parallel to be drawn if the four-time Pro Bowler has to miss extended time with a high ankle sprain that has him on crutches for the time being. Lissemore would step in for Ratliff to become the interim starter in the Cowboys' 3-4.
"Ever since I got here, he's a guy that I looked up to," Lissemore said. "I watched everything he did on and off the field: lifting, training, going about it at practice and games. He's just one of those guys that, from my perspective, coming in the seventh round, it shows that anything is possible. It's not where you start, it's where you finish, and he's a prime example of that."
Just as Ratliff was viewed as a player ready to emerge even before he took over for Ferguson, defensive line coach Brian Baker has said Lissemore is already a starting-caliber player. Both are considered undersized for the nose tackle position, usually reserved for mammoth roadblock types, but bring a lot to the table in terms of their quickness and motor.
"We're similar in some ways, but he's a fantastic athlete," Lissemore said. "He's an invaluable piece of our defense, so if we need to fill in, we're going to try to do the best we can. Like I said, he's an important part of our defense, though."
Ratliff is being treated as a day-to-day case, but he was still walking with the help of crutches on Monday. High ankle sprains can take over a month to heal.
Of course, the Cowboys don't anticipate Lissemore having to make up for Ratliff's absence alone if the starter has to miss extended time. The club will rotate at the position, perhaps more than usual, and the nickel and dime defenses will call for changes in personnel.
"That position, there are so many different combinations you can play with," head coach Jason Garrett said. "We have a number of different guys who we like to play. We play a variety of fronts. So, as the game goes on, I would expect Josh Brent and Lissemore to play in his place, but I think that's premature.
"Hopefully (Ratliff) will be able to practice by week's end."
While Ratliff's ankle injury is unrelated to the plantar fasciitis that kept him off the field for all of the offseason practices and training camp, his downtime did give his backups the chance to take significant reps, which could be of some value in his absence now.
"It's been a help just because of the amount of reps I've been getting," Brent said. "But it's always good to have him in there, to see what things work real well, what doesn't. Part of our job is watching film, and film is a big part of it. So when you have somebody like Jay doing it right all the time, he sets an example of what I need to do in order to step up to that level."
For Lissemore, Ratliff's foot injury provided more chances to play at nose tackle. Like Ratliff, he began his career as an end, but has the versatility to play both inside and outside, as well as in nickel situations.
"It is different," Lissemore said. "Nose is a little bit less space. It's quicker reads, different blocks. Obviously it's a little bit harder to pass rush. End, you've got a little bit more space, a little more time to react, but it's easier to pass rush, so they're two different worlds. You've got to adjust to them, but if you can, you can excel at both.
"It's a little bit more of a man's world at nose, I think."