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Spagnola: New QB Journey Same As Old One


FROM HOME, Texas – Maybe? Could be? Who knows?

But seriously, might it be possible for the Cowboys to catch quarterback lightning in a bottle for the second time within a 20-year period?

And this has nothing to do with Dak Prescott, certainly his rise to fame a story in itself. But at least he was a fourth-round draft choice. At least he came from somewhere known to football mankind, Mississippi State, an SEC school at that, playing at the highest level of college football.

Nope, this new quarterback journey is the same as what now must be considered an "old" quarterback journey, the curiously similar tales of Ben DiNucci and Tony Romo.

Seriously, and this in no way is suggesting DiNucci, the Cowboys' seventh-round draft choice like three weeks ago, is going to turn into the highly successful and somewhat unpredictable franchise quarterback Romo did during his 14-year career.

But occurs to me, and must give the Cowboys hope, maybe even influenced their decision to bring DiNucci along, their parallel paths to the Cowboys are sort of those blinking red lights, the ones COO Stephen Jones likes to talk about lighting up a draft board.

Think about it.

Romo played his college ball at what was then referred to as a Division I-AA school, Eastern Illinois University.

DiNucci played the majority of his college ball at the same level, but what's now referred to as a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school, James Madison University.

Each were widely successful. Romo winner of the Walter Payton Award given to the Division I-AA player of the year.

DiNucci was the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year and voted the American Football Coaches Association's first-team All-American quarterback.

Neither was invited to participate as a quarterback at the NFL Scouting Combine, nor to play in the East-West Game or the Senior Bowl, though Romo was asked to be a non-graded quarterback to throw for the wide receivers at the combine.

In fact, DiNucci was robbed of even his pre-draft Pro Day workout by the current coronavirus outbreak, but we have since discovered he simulated a Pro Day workout posted to Twitter and sent the video to various team scouts, enough to have 10 to 12 pre-draft conversations with various teams.

Romo, now, went undrafted.

The Cowboys did select DiNucci, thought to be what's called a "priority" free agent, in the seventh round, but only because "the Browns had reached out, and the Bears had reached out with undrafted contracts," as DiNucci says. "The Cowboys had actually done that, too, and we were talking a little bit back and forth and they said, 'We don't want to leave it to chance. If you make it to us in the seventh round, we're going to draft you and make you a part of our team and Mr. Jones will give you the call.' When pick No. 231 came up, I was glued to the TV, glued to my phone and all my emotions kind of came out about these past seven or eight years since I started playing football. This all paid off."

The Cowboys, if you remembered, gambled on Romo to sign as an undrafted free agent. But they had an in. Assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach Sean Payton on Bill Parcells' first staff also played at Eastern Illinois. He knew all about Romo, for sure. And when the Denver Broncos offered Romo a $15,000 signing bonus to sign as an undrafted free agent, considered back then to be one of the highest, outbidding the Cowboys offer by $5,000, Payton told owner Jerry Jones to put his checkbook away, that "I got this."

Payton did. Romo signed on the dotted line.

But this time, the Cowboys didn't chance the chance connection to DiNucci they had, too. See, McCarthy was at least a tad familiar with DiNucci, both from the Pittsburgh area. So connected, McCarthy's brother Joe was DiNucci's eighth grade basketball coach. Plus, DiNucci's James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti is the brother of former McCarthy assistant Frank Jr.

Be hard to make this stuff up.

This without even taking into account the chance meeting McCarthy and DiNucci had on the hotel elevator when James Madison was staying in Frisco adjacent to The Star for the FCS Championship game at Toyota Stadium the same week McCarthy was named the Cowboys ninth head coach. One of those, "Hi coach, you might not remember me but …" sort of happenstances.

"The ties go back a little bit longer, and it's just crazy to kind of see this thing full circle," DiNucci says. "It's just an unbelievable opportunity, and I'm so excited."

So crazy.

And both quarterbacks will start in basically the same Cowboys boat. Trying to latch onto the roster as the third quarterback. If you remember, too, Romo had to battle Clint Stoerner for the third spot back in 2003 behind what turned out to be Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson. He then likely would not have made it as the third quarterback in 2004 had the Cowboys not cut ties with Carter early in training camp, allowing Romo to hang in as No. 3 behind Vinny Testaverde and the newly acquired Drew Henson.

DiNucci's goal on the now expanded 55-man roster will be to beat out Clayton Thorson for the No. 3 spot behind Dak Prescott and the newly-acquired veteran backup Andy Dalton, and also convince them it would be risky relegating him to the practice squad.

So here we go … again. DiNucci arrives with similar athletic ability and moxie as Romo, the odds having been stacked against both of them, just 17 years apart.

Found this note I wrote on Romo from one of those early offseason workouts, trying to sort through all the quarterbacks, including at the time second-year Swiss Army knife Woody Dantzler, who had some QB experience in college:

_Now I can tell you the order (Parcells) looked at the guys: Hutchinson, Romo, Carter, Romo, Stoerner, Romo, Dantzler and everyone else. So it wasn't as if Parcells needed to decide after this minicamp if his starter was here, if his backup was here or if he needed to dip into free agency. The process has just begun._

Boy, had it.

And now has it, if virtually.

As for DiNucci, who led the Dukes in 2019 to an 8-0 CAA title, a 14-2 overall record – only losses were to West Virginia in the season opener, 20-13, and then to North Dakota State, 28-20, in the FCS Championship Game, his field should not be as crowded. And this is a guy who led the FCS nation by completing 70.9 percent of his passes and finishing second in collegiate passing efficiency (169.5). And get this, in a second-round playoff victory over Monmouth (Miles Austin's alma mater), DiNucci completed 84 percent of his passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another 66 yards and two touchdowns in a 66-21 victory.

And the guy didn't just come out of nowhere, either, since his senior year at Pine-Richland High School in Wexford, Pa., earned him Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year, and he did spend three seasons (one red-shirt) at the University of Pittsburgh before transferring to James Madison. And throwing for 3,441 yards in 2019, including 29 touchdowns and just six interceptions, plus running for 567 yards and seven more touchdowns are credentials worth considering.

And sounds as if he has a good head on his shoulders.

"I'm a guy that's going to come in and put my head down and go to work like I have the last five years," DiNucci says, named to the CAA Commissioner's Football Academic Honor Roll and now changing the family's NFL allegiance from Steelers to Cowboys. "I understand that this business is kind of cutthroat, and you can't have any bad days. I'm going to do my best to put my best foot forward as soon as I walk in the building.

"Whatever happens, happens, and I'm just excited to get this journey going."

A journey similar to that similarly improbable one we witnessed 17 years ago from Romo, the fresh-faced kid from Wisconsin.

Oh, and one last similarity. Both guys have last names ending in a vowel, Romo of Hispanic descent and DiNucci sounding quite Italian to me.