Scout's Notebook: Thornton Stands Out, Heath's Coverage, Grading Gathers

OXNARD, Calif. – With a morning practice on Tuesday, we have a quick turnaround from Monday evening's work. But there's still plenty to learn from the Monday practice, which showcased plenty of young players on both sides of the ball.

Here are my top notes from practice:

  • I'm starting to see a little bit more of DeMarcus Lawrence in these practices at right defensive end. He had a really nice get-off and sack of Dak Prescott during the team period. Lawrence was able to grab the edge of Emmett Cleary quickly, then close the space with a direct path to Prescott, who was set up in the middle of the pocket. Lawrence was able to maintain the level of his rush, and, if in a game, he would have had a clean shot on the quarterback.
  • I ran't remember a practice up until this point where Cole Beasley has had a drop -- which goes to show you how well he's played. During the team period, the talented receiver was working his route from left to right and it appeared that it was one of those cases where he was trying to run with the ball before he actually had it in his hands. Dak Prescott put the ball where he needed to ahead of a driving Anthony Hitchens but Beasley couldn't come up with it.
  • Chidobe Awuzie continues to play big in these practices. Andy Jones executed an out route to the sideline, but Awuzie was right there in step with him. Kellen Moore made the commitment to Jones and fired the ball outside to his left. Awuzie, playing over Jones' left shoulder was in outstanding position to make a text book play with his off hand before Jones had a chance to extend his hands to secure the ball. This is an example of how Awuzie's length will help him when dealing with these NFL receivers and tight ends while in coverage.
  • I've asked to see more from Cedric Thornton this year and Monday during practice, he was able to do just that. The offense tried to run a trap inside with Ezekiel Elliott in Thornton's direction. The usually reliable Travis Frederick and Zack Martin were working a combination block on Thornton at the point of attack to allow Jonathan Cooper to pull behind them to trap Stephen Paea. Thornton showed the quickness and the power to split the double team and disrupt Cooper's path -- which left Paea unblocked to trap Elliott in the backfield before he had a chance to get going.
  • You could tell during the one-on-one pass rush period that La'el Collins was more conscious of using his hands during the drill. As mentioned before, when he is bad, it's usually due to bad hand placement. I noticed that he was holding his hands higher in his pass set in order to get them inside quicker. From this position he was better, and he didn't allow the rusher to get inside on his body where he was having issues before.
  • Before Andy Jones made an outstanding play during the one-on-one compete period, he had another chance to come up with a similar play against Leon McFadden during the one-on-one drills with the defensive backs. Jones ran a fade to the right corner of the end zone, but McFadden was right there underneath him. What was amazing was that McFadden never turned around to locate the ball. He went on Jones' vertical movement, and as he tried to high-point the ball, McFadden went with him. It appeared initially that Jones got both hands on the ball, and as he was bringing it down to the ground, McFadden was able to strip it away from him for the incompletion.
  • For those of you that wanted more of Ezekiel Elliott catching the ball, you got your wish on Monday. Elliott, working in the red zone executed a perfect wheel route against John Loutulelei for a touchdown. Elliott sold it all the way by starting up the field, drawing Lotulelei toward him, then breaking to his left to work around the linebacker. Lotulelei had no chance on the play and with that separation, Dak Prescott was able to float the ball with touch into Elliott's waiting hands with no problem.
  • Jeff Heath is not going to make many flashy plays, but the ones he does make are usually big. Heath continues to show his ability to play in coverage when asked to – which, in my opinion, is an underrated trait for him. In the red zone period, Heath drew James Hanna one-on-one and didn't give him any space. Hanna tried to run an option route that you usually see from Cole Beasley where he works inside, then back to the outside. Heath wasn't fooled at all. He was able to keep his balance, which allowed him to maintain his positioning, and when the ball arrived he knocked it away before it got to Hanna's hands.
  • Rico Gathers showed up as a blocker during practice, which was good to see. The scheme called for Gathers to capture the edge in order to get Nate Theaker and Byron Bell around the corner in order to block support on the edge. Gathers was able to pin Charles Tapper to the inside without allowing him to penetrate. By doing so, Theaker and Bell were able to get around cleanly with Theaker kicking out Mark Nzeocha and Bell hooking John Lotulelei to give Rod Smith all the room he needed to get the ball to the outside. It was a well-designed play that all started with a block from Rico Gathers.
  • This was the first practice where we were able to see newly signed Ronnie Hillman get some work. Hillman showed his explosive quickness, breaking down Joseph Jones during the compete period with a move up the field. It left Jones badly off balance and in no position to finish the play. Hillman later came back in practice and hit a trap play inside behind the block of Nate Theaker for a sizeable gain. One of Hillman's best traits is that quickness, which allows him to make that first man miss in space.


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