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Training Camp | 2023

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Spagnola: Nothing Much In Camp Could Be Finer


OXNARD, Calif. – There never is a perfect training camp.

This one was is, in relation to major injuries, holdouts, logistics, travel, accommodations, food, weather, field conditions, behavior, coaching and player performances.

Such has been the case out here in Southern California, sandwiched between the Ventura Highway and the Pacific Ocean as the Cowboys were pulling up stakes Friday afternoon, heading to Seattle for Preseason Game 2 against the Seahawks (9 p.m. CDT kickoff) after their 26-day stay, only interrupted by a quick, like 30-hour stay at home for Preseason Game 2 vs. Jacksonville.

Smiles all around.

"I think it's been an excellent camp," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said after the final practice on Thursday. "Our biggest focus now is to build off Jacksonville."

First and foremost, the Cowboys completed 3½ weeks of camp without suffering a major injury. No one out for the season. No one needing to be placed on injured reserve. At this point, likely no one needing to spend a full day on the initial 53-man roster and then moved to returnable IR.

Really, the only hiccups were these:

Safety Donovan Wilson, last year's leading tackler, suffered a severe calf strain the very first practice, and at best might return at some point next week. If not, Wilson will have two more full weeks to prepare for the Sept. 10 season opener.

Then there was the two-game suspension for veteran running back Ronald Jones, followed by a groin strain that has kept him out of practice for nearly two weeks. Also, the bone bruise suffered by veteran offensive lineman Chuma Edoga, another guy who might return next week. But bottom line, neither was a lock to make the team.

And then there was the Zack Martin holdout, looking for a bump in salary and guarantees over the final two years on his contract. But all's well that ends well since Martin and the Cowboys solved their stalemate the beginning of this week and the All-Pro guard will jump back into full practices next week.

But really, that's it, and hopefully this flash of optimism does not create some sort of jinx with two preseason games yet to be played.

That, though, is about it for speed bumps.

Hey, the weather was fantastic, the fields were in good conditions, only one player was released (kicker Tristan Vizcaino), the neighbors here at the River Ridge Sports Complex didn't express their displeasure by throwing water balloons over the VIP structure built on the south side of the practice fields that was obstructing their second-floor house views of the practices and the food provided here was high-end quality . . . even for us.

But here is what you guys need to know most about the Cowboys while still with another week of camp work back at The Star/Ford Center in Frisco, Texas:

This team leaves here with few holes on this roster, and two fewer than might have caused concern if Tony Pollard and Terence Steele had not successfully returned from their surgeries, and they have, and are ready to go. Or if the Cowboys had not taken the preemptive strike in the offseason to fortify wide receiver and cornerback by trading for Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore. Or, if Martin's holdout had stretched into the season.

With an improvement at wide receiver, from what we've seen at tight end needing to compensate for Dalton Schultz wanting out in free agency, especially from Jake Ferguson taking control there, the biggest concern on offense must be the running back rotation behind Pollard. Like how do the Cowboys replace Ezekiel Elliott's 12 rushing touchdowns now that we know for sure re-signing him is no longer an option, Zeke having inked a one-year deal with New England? There are candidates, but nothing proven with Malik Davis, Rico Dowdle and Deuce Vaughn.

And McCarthy doesn't like to use the word "concern," preferring "focus." OK, so the other offensive focus is backups on the offensive line. Well, judge for yourself Saturday night when that second offensive line once again will be on display. But know the Cowboys really like the potential of fifth round draft choice Asim Richards and appears the guard/center backup jobs will focus on Matt Farniok and Brock Hoffman. Oh, and remember, if anything happens long term at tackle, the Cowboys need to just move Tyler Smith over to tackle and find a guard.

Now kicker. Brandon Aubrey has loads of talent but minimal experience. And not minimal experience in the NFL, just a rookie, but minimal kicking a football period since he kicked a soccer ball from high school to college to MLS, and then just two football seasons in the USFL. That's it. But the Cowboys are impressed with his potential and talent. Now he just must prove he can handle the mental part of the game.

As for the defense, this very well could be the strength of this team, providing they have solved their problems stopping the run. Because looking at the depth chart, the only missing starters from last year are LB Anthony Barr and DT Carlos Watkins. That's it, while considering the additions of Damone Clark to start the season this time, trading for Gilmore and now a healthy Johnathan Hankins, with the hopes of Mazi Smith coming around.

This could be something else.

And let's not forget the dynamics of Micah Parsons, offenses having no idea where this guy will be lining up.

And if you need a defensive attitude primer, here is the reaction on Wednesday after a highly competitive practice, which included a couple of skirmishes.

"They came for us," safety Jayron Kearse said afterward of the offense. "We ain't taking no, uh, S, from anybody, all 32 teams, we ain't taking no S from nobody. If that's what it comes down to, whether it's this offense or the next offense, we are trying to show we are the best in the business."

And this from a defense now in Dan Quinn's third season ranked 12th overall last year, but first in takeaways (33) for the second year in a row and fourth in points allowed (20.1) and appearing to have an improved pass rush over last year's that helped lead the Cowboys to 54 sacks, one short of tying for the second most in the NFL.

"Come Sept. 10th or 11th, whatever it is, it's going to be another team on the other side of the offense, of the defense, and they are going to have to take what we are bringing to them," Kearse says.

The Cowboys are hoping to bring a lot, but if this portion of training camp means anything, they appear to be starting off on the right foot.

And that includes the quarterback, Dak Prescott having gone through an entire training camp, not having to deal with continuing rehab following season-ending surgery or having to back off during camp because of nagging shoulder or calf injuries. And how much does it help Dak starts off the season with a wide receiver corps featuring CeeDee Lamb, Cooks and a totally rejuvenated Michael Gallup, while the Cowboys continue developing depth with Jalen Tolbert, KaVontae Turpin, Simi Fehoko and newbie Jalen Brooks.

"I don't take anything for granted, I don't think I ever have to be honest with you," Dak says. "But the way I feel now . . . it been great. It's four years or more since I've been able to take every snap, from the walk through to the practices, I'm just staying in the moment."

This team seems to be staying in the moment, especially the passion displayed in that final padded practice out here, the skirmishes and the fire expressed afterward. Just seems to be something brewing out here.

"That's a credit to everything that we've really put into this team, and into both units – feeling like we're nobody's little brother," Dak said. "I told the offense the other day that I grew up being a little brother, and that's not happening anymore."

And with that, there they go.

So far, so good.

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