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Spagnola: Of All The Worries, Maybe This One Is Secondary


FRISCO, Texas – Worry, worry, worry.

     There're still a bunch of worries as the Cowboys hit the early summer break following this week's minicamp. Maybe most of all over 90 guys doing all the right things with so much unstructured time on their hands until the July 24 start to training camp in Oxnard, Calif.

     There're worries about the Cowboys' wide receiver position.

     There're worries about the tight ends.

     There seem to be worries about the quarterback.

     There're worries about the future status of defensive tackle David Irving, who claimed on Thursday the personal family problems keeping him out of the OTA practices were behind him, only to find out on Friday he's being suspended the first four games of the season for violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy. This suspension, coupled with the four-game suspension last season after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, highlights why the Cowboys signed the restricted free agent to only a second-round tender ($2.91 million) instead of a first or offering him a multi-year extension.

     There seem to be worries about just how young this team is with Sean Lee, who turns 31 two days before the charter flight leaves for camp, being the Cowboys' only offensive or defensive starter at least 30 years of age.

     And goodness knows there seems to be much handwringing over the Cowboys' safety position.


     But if you ask me what's been my biggest impression over rookie minicamp, nine OTA practices and the three minicamp practices these past five weeks, while taking into consideration the pads have yet to come on, then I'd say this:

     The secondary sure looks good to me.

     Especially the starting cornerbacks.

     Extra-especially Chidobe Awuzie.

     These guys have been ballin' out there, and just maybe a projected worry being mitigated.

     Now, I know, I know, if the defense has been ballin' then the offense must be struggling. But understand, that's what these offseason workouts are for: to teach, to learn, especially with so many new faces at wide receiver and tight end.

     But this defense, working at times without starters Sean Lee, DeMarcus Lawrence, Irving, Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford and potential contributors Kony Ealy, Charles Tapper and Leighton Vander Esch, has been eye-opening.

     Including those of head coach Jason Garrett, saying the final day of the minicamp, "I'd say the defense has probably won the last couple of days."

     No probably about it. And look no further than the play of the first-team secondary: Awuzie, Byron Jones, Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods.

Now that's a lot of youngin's back there. Heath's 25 NFL starts represent the most of any of those guys at the position they currently are playing. Remember, Jones, with 42 NFL starts, has only three starts at corner – all his rookie season – where he is now playing once again. Awuzie only had six starts during last year's rookie season. And Woods only three during his, but none as the starting free safety where he's at right now.

     Of their progress these past five weeks, new secondary coach Kris Richard says, "They certainly don't look like they did in Day 1. They've consistently gotten better day in and day out."

     Jones for sure, and makes sense, since his corner work over the past few seasons has been moving into the slot to match up with those pass catching-type tight ends. He's transitioning to the outside.

Heath, playing where he's been at strong safety, looks right at home, having started 15 games last year. And Woods is re-acclimating to the free-safety position he played in college, and at times last year as a rookie in sub-packages for the Cowboys.

     But to me, with veteran Orlando Scandrick now in Washington – the Cowboys didn't hesitate giving away the No. 32 he'd worn the past 10 seasons to rookie corner Donovan Olumba – Awuzie is _the guy_ back there. Reminds me of what we saw of last year's second-round draft choice about this time last year. Why, the rookie Awuzie might have won a starting job out of camp if not for all the down time caused by the strained hamstring that summer and early in the season, causing him to miss six games.

     Won't take you long to realize he's changed his number from 33 to 24. He'll show up instantly. He's covering. He's breaking on the ball. If you are looking for a breakout season, better _ink_ Awuzie into your top three. He's showing exactly why the Cowboys selected him last year with the 28th pick in the second round out of Colorado. Aggressive. Physical. Edgy. Not cocky, but confident.

     All of which reminds me of what his Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt had to say about him when coming through this time last year to check on his guy. Leavitt, a hard-nosed college linebacker and no-nonsense college coach, couldn't say enough good things about "Chido":

"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."

     Leavitt didn't stop there.

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

And when asked what was the first thing he realized about Awuzie when he arrived at Colorado in 2015, Chido's junior season, Leavitt didn't hesitate, saying, "He had no fear, played with no fear."

Sort of reminds me of the corner who first made No. 24 famous for the Cowboys:

     Everson Walls.

     Not suggesting Awuzie is going to finish his NFL career with the 57 interceptions Walls did or match Walls' single-season franchise record of 11 interceptions set his rookie season (1981). But he has similar instincts, plus that same _you can't beat me_ mentality Walls possessed during his 14-year NFL career, which rightfully should have earned him Hall of Fame honors this year.

     This guy is the real deal.

     As for the rest, Heath seems very comfortable, Jones appears suited for the style Richard wants his corners to play with and Woods, as Richard says, "Makes quick decisions, he's football intelligent and he's fast."

     Provide this group with a reasonable pass rush, at least as good as last year's if not better considering the potential additions of Jahid Ward, Ealy, Tapper and Dorance Armstrong to a potentially healthy front of Lawrence, Collins, Crawford and maybe at some point Irving, then the Cowboys might be on to something here defensively.

     We'll see, right?

     "They're humble, they're hungry, they're a joy to coach," Richard says of his inherited secondary.

     Certainly, raising the possibility of buffering at least one of these perceived headaches.