OXNARD, Calif. – Last season, the Cowboys finished with a meager five rushing touchdowns, tied for 30th in the NFL with Kansas City. DeMarco Murray went on record as saying that it was an "unacceptable" statistic.
But in order for that to improve, Dallas will need more than just contributions from Murray and fellow running back Felix Jones. They will also have to rely on the hardnosed blocking of newly acquired fullback Lawrence Vickers.
Vickers joins the Cowboys with six years of NFL experience at the fullback position. In 2007, he took over as the starting fullback for the Cleveland Browns and blocked for Jamal Lewis as he rushed for 1,304 yards. After signing a two-year deal with the Houston Texans last season, Vickers helped Arian Foster rush for 1,224 yards.
But then the Texans decided to save money, and the Cowboys were the beneficiaries. Houston released him on Mar. 13, with the Cowboys signing him the next day to a two-year deal.
Dallas knew that they were getting an excellent blocker, but the word around the locker room is that Vickers has also emerged as vocal leader, especially among the running backs. He downplays the idea that he is especially talkative, but he certainly has a passion for the game that is apparent to his teammates.
"It's just me being myself. I'm not afraid to be myself," says Vickers. "That's what guys like. This is what I do. I play football. I don't do anything else. At the end of the day, this is what I love. This is what I care about. When you love and care about something, you put the initiative to do the things that you need to do, whether that's talking, being the first one out there, not being afraid to say 'Hey, I mess up too, but I want to fix my mistakes.'"
Vickers also does not see himself as *the *leader. He stresses the importance of leadership qualities that many members of the team can share. He knows that if he works hard and does his part, then his teammates will be much more likely to respect him, and they will have a better chance of achieving success together.
"It's about allowing people to think anybody can be that guy," says Vickers. "I'm just trying to come in here and help. I'm not trying to take a leadership role. I'm just being Vick."
Murray, who had 900 rushing yards as a rookie last year, has enjoyed working with Vickers and is excited to have him as a blocker.
"It's going great," says Murray. "We're really jelling right now. We're having a great time. He's a really smart player and he definitely blocks really well."
To a certain degree, Vickers' success will be measured by how well Murray can take advantage of his blocking. That same formula is why Vickers is considered such a quality fullback in this league – he has helped established running backs like Lewis and Foster accomplish higher levels of success. Vickers attributes this success to the chemistry he is able to develop with those players over time.
"I don't really compare guys," says Vickers. "All the running backs I've been around have been good. Point blank, period. And that just comes from me working with them and them working with me and us working together and us all having that same goal."
Vickers explains that Murray shares the one characteristic that all the successful players he has been around possess.
"The good thing about everybody I've been around is that they love playing the game," says Vickers. "So therefore, being good is not an option, they're just going to be good regardless. That's where DeMarco fits in; he loves playing this game. It's not a matter of 'Is he good?' or 'How does he compare to these guys?' It's how good is he going to be? He could be really, really good, super-good, great-good, all those things that have to do with good. If you love something and care about it, then you're going to put the work in."
The fullback position is one of the least glorified jobs in the NFL. The majority of the time a good fullback makes (or takes) a big hit and uses his strength to create an opening for another player to be able to celebrate in the end zone. However, Vickers may also prove to be a receiving threat out of the backfield
Some argue that the Cowboys have not had a legitimate receiving threat from the fullback position since Daryl Johnston. Vickers doesn't expect to be a primary target, but he is more than prepared to catch whatever is thrown his way. In fact, he says that he is prepared to do just about anything.
"I see myself as whatever the coach needs," says Vickers. "I'm a utility guy. If the coach needs some water then I'm going to get the water. Whatever needs to be done. I'm all about winning. Whatever I can do to help the team. I gave up my glory when I gave up my running back days. Now I'm just trying to be a part of something great."
Running backs coach Skip Peete has been working with Vickers throughout training camp and he has liked what he has seen thus far. While he was reluctant to make any predictions about the upcoming campaign, he did share his feelings about Vickers' place in the league the past few seasons.
"I would say in the last couple years, the top two full backs have been Vonta Leach and him," says Peete. "The reason is because they are physical fullbacks at the point of attack when it comes to lead blocking. I obviously have to see him play in games and evaluate him from that point, but I'm extremely excited to have him and I'm looking forward to watching him play." In 2006, the Browns had the 31st ranked rushing offense in the NFL. In 2007, with Vickers taking over as the starting fullback, Cleveland jumped all the way to the 10th ranked rushing offense in the NFL. The Texans already had a potent rushing attack the year before Vickers joined the team with the 7th ranked rushing offense. But when they brought him in for the 2011 season, they became the 2nd ranked rushing team in the league.