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Spagnola: From Gunner To 'Cheeto' To Pads To Amazingly Young Roster

FRISCO, Texas – Stuff we can learn hanging around The Star, OTAs, Cowboys U and whatever else goes on around here during the offseason.

This was a strange sight: During special teams practice, specifically punt coverage, No. 58 was lining up wide left as one of the outside gunners going down covering punts. Normally, that's like a cornerback or safety, maybe a wide receiver and in some rare instances a third string running back. But come on, a defensive end, 6-4, 260? Seriously?

          Yep, I am, that 58 being Damontre Moore, the fifth-year free agent the Cowboys signed to a two-year, $1.65 million contract, including a $100,000 signing bonus. In other words, a prove-it deal. And so far the former third-round choice of the New York Giants is getting every chance to prove he belongs in this league after being released by the Giants during his third year, then playing three games with Miami, having worked out last summer for the Cowboys and eventually signing on for four games with Seattle late in the 2016 season.

         With defensive end Benson Mayowa out nursing a knee, DeMarcus Lawrence still rehabbing from back surgery and Charles Tapper first eased into OTAs and now nursing a strained hip, Moore has been lining up at the elusive right defensive end spot with the first-team defense before usually giving way to first-round draft choice Taco Charlton, who gets the remaining first-team reps. That's understandable.

         But gunner?

         "Did it with the Giants and Miami," Moore proudly says. "I can't do a lot of things, but I can run."

Yes he can. Moore, who went to high school in suburban Rowlett, was approached by former Giants linebacker and Dallas Carter High star Jessie Armstead during his first year in New York. Armstead, working in the Giants player development department, said, "This guy loves to run and told me, 'Why not play gunner?'" So did then Giants assistant special teams coach Larry Izzo, a three-time special teams Pro Bowler during his NFL career.

So, with a crowded defensive end field, Cowboys special teams coach Rich Bisaccia has sent him out there on special teams, giving Moore an added opportunity to make this 53-man roster. And what was the reaction of his teammates when Bisaccia sent him out wide on punt coverage the first time?

"Ah, he don't play gunner," Moore says. "You must be joking?"

Naw, no joke.

Inside Info

So, if you are looking for some insider trading information on Cowboys second-round draft choice Chidobe Awuzie, who better to provide that than his defensive coordinator at Colorado the past two seasons. One Jim Leavitt, the former University of Missouri linebacker who rose through the college coaching ranks to become head coach for 13 seasons at the University of Central Florida in 1996 when he helped initiate the Bulls football program. He was recently hired as Oregon's defensive coordinator.

Leavitt was here at Wednesday's OTA practice, checking out two of his former Buffaloes, Awuzie and defensive tackle Jordan Carrell, and could be heard telling "Cheeto" after practice after seeing him walking over, "I was about to yell at you when you were walking over here, 'Get your (ahem) going. If you're walking, you're wrong.'"

And Leavitt's eyes lit up when asked for a scouting report on his former corner:

"He's got it all. He's mentally tough. He's got great explosive speed, good hands, good eyes, very smart, knock your head off, can play the corner, can press, can play off, can play the safety, can play the nickel, very personal, will be great playing special teams. He's real. He's a football player, he's just a football player."

Ask for more …

"He's got an NFL body, he's got an NFL mind," Leavitt says. "He's got humility, but he's got confidence. He knows how to act as a pro."

Now, Awuzie was at Colorado for two years before Leavitt arrived in 2015. So Jim, the first thing you realized about Cheeto?

"He had no fear, played with no fear," he said.

(Short aside: Jim was a freshman linebacker at Missouri when I was a senior reporter in journalism school. I then returned three years later covering Missouri football at the Columbia Tribune when Jim was a senior, and then over the next two years when he became a graduate assistant coach. That's like 40 years ago. Strange this life we live sometimes.)

Words To Live By

See where I'm going to have to share the Voice of Reason title with Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, especially when it comes to Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, who actually took five snaps at middle linebacker with the second team Wednesday during a nine-on-nine drill. Now look, Smith's progress from last year at this time is a 180, considering back then he was still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and a dead peroneal nerve. Where he is now is encouraging and somewhat promising.

And while everyone from owner Jerry Jones to COO Stephen Jones to head coach Jason Garrett to defensive captain Sean Lee has been effusive about the progress he has made, trying to play with a nerve continuing to regenerate and a brace aiding the drop-foot in his left leg, I've been saying, this is all great, but the true test will be in training camp.

Well, when Marinelli was interviewed after Wednesday's practice, to me, his statement is the bottom line when those asking were overly enthusiastic about just where Smith is after seeing him on the field for the first time. Marinelli listened intently. No smile. Little reaction.

Then Coach Rod said, "Pads are everything."

Meaning, let's wait to evaluate Jaylon once the pads come on in training camp, further meaning, let's wait to see what he can do when he is really playing football, since what's been going on out here for the previous three weeks really is nothing more than what those high school kids were doing on Thursday during the Cowboys U touch football tournament.

 So for Jaylon Smith and the Cowboys, the mantra still is one step at a time.

Fourth Down

If the rookie Charlton gained anything during the basically non-contact OTA workouts, he's learned while pass rushing to not let four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith get his hands on him. If he does, and Tryon did repeatedly during some 11-on-11 drills Wednesday, it's lights out for Taco. And Taco, that's why early in Tyron's career he was nicknamed "Hotel California," partly for being from L.A. and the other part in reference to the Eagles' hit song, because if he gets his hands on you, you'll never leave

See where the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas has put the top odds (7-1) on the defending champion Patriots facing the Cowboys in Super Bowl LII.  Next came Pats vs. the Packers at 8-1 and then a repeat of Pats-Falcons at 10-1 …

 Saw a recent note diminishing the Cowboys' 2016 record of 13-3 by saying they only beat four teams with a winning record. Well, excuse me, but they won six of the eight games they played against teams with a winning record (8-7-1 Redskins twice, 10-6 Packers, 11-5 Steelers, 9-7 Lions and 9-7 Bucs) and two more with 8-8 records, Minnesota and Baltimore. The only team with a winning record during the regular season the Cowboys lost to was the Giants (11-5) twice, and by a total of four points …

Two players who performed more than admirably last year but are currently flying under the radar are linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson. Hitchens started all 16 games last season at middle linebacker for the NFL's No. 1 defense against the run, finishing third on the team with 104 tackles. And Wilson, after recovering from the debilitating eye injury that sidelined him from the start of training camp, became a force at strong-side linebacker once he earned his first of six starts in the eighth game of the season. Only ones he didn't start from that point forward were with the Cowboys' opening in a nickel defense. And with Sean Lee being held out of team drills during OTAs, it's Hitchens and Wilson at linebacker on the first-team nickel …

Last word goes to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, pointing out how young his offensive personnel is: "We have a young team. Witten is the only guy over 30 on our offense." Well, he's right about that. In fact, the only guy older than 30-year-olds Orlando Scandrick, Lee and Nolan Carroll on the 90-man roster is 36-year-old deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur. Man, seems a lifetime ago when L.P. showed up that day (Sept. 28) in San Jose, Calif., for a workout when head coach Bill Parcells decided to keep the team on the West Coast in 2005 between consecutive road games against San Francisco and Oakland (Games 3 and 4). He had tired of struggling rookie free agent deep snapper Jon Condo …

See ya after Mini's.

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