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Spagnola: Scandrick's Spirit Must Become Contagious In The Secondary

OXNARD, Calif. – There seems to be a blood pressure epidemic going around. The numbers are rising.

         All caused by those so concerned with the Cowboys secondary, even though we have nearly a month before the season opener, and even though the presumptive starting secondary hasn't even played a preseason game together yet.

         And it's the same issue keep hearing over and over:

         What are the Cowboys going to do without Barry Church?

*         What are the Cowboys going to do without Brandon Carr?*

*         What are the Cowboys going to do without Morris Claiborne?*

*         What are the Cowboys going to do without J.J. Wilcox?*

         All good questions, but a tad premature.

         They did sign two veteran free agents, cornerback Nolan Carroll and safety Robert Blanton. And I understand, nothing to get your dog's tail wagging.

         They also spent four draft choices on defensive backs: cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Marquez White, and safety Xavier Woods. Younger, maybe faster, but obviously lacking in experience.

         They do have nine-game starter Anthony Brown back for his second NFL season. He's a keeper, just too bad at the moment he's battling a hamstring strain.

         But then there is this: As of Tuesday this week, three of the corners had been knocked out of practice with strained hamstrings. We already knew about the one Lewis suffered soon after returning from his court date. Sounds as if he will be out for at least a couple of more weeks.

         Then Brown tweaked his hammy in the Hall of Fame Game this past Thursday night. He still had not returned to practice midweek. And then on Tuesday, White left practice with a hamstring strain.

         What the what? Seems as though there is something in the water back here.

         That likely means those three guys will miss Saturday's second preseason game, the one in Los Angeles against the Rams at the Coliseum.

         That then would mean the Cowboys would have just six healthy cornerbacks for the game: Orlando Scandrick, Nolan Carroll, Awuzie, Duke Thomas, Leon McFadden and Sammy Seamster. Strange how injuries will strike one particular position, as if hamstrings are a contagious disease.

         Now this, too, shall pass. Hamstrings will heal.

         So, to me, here is the entire key to the cornerback position:

         Orlando Scandrick has to be, and let me repeat that, has to be the Orlando Scandrick circa 2014. He was the guy that year, recording a couple of interceptions, a couple of forced fumbles, 11 passes defensed, and generally played at a high level. He covered well at corner and covered well in the slot.

         But then he tore his ACL near the end of camp in 2015. Lost for the season. While we hear all the time how guys come back from torn ACLs these days, it's never easy. It's hard.

         And even when they do return, it's not automatic. You just don't go back to the way you were. First, you have to trust the knee. Second you have to get back to playing football. Third, especially at cornerback, you have to recover your confidence.

         Scandrick in 2016 struggled early. He incurred early injuries. Strained hamstrings cost him the first four games of the season. Seems as though he was never the same that year after that. Not the Scandrick of old.

         "Last year he fought through a lot of things and probably didn't play as well as he's played in the past," Garrett confirmed.

         Now he's a year removed. The 10th-year corner had a good offseason. The Cowboys desperately need the Scandrick of old to be on the field this year, the key guy in helping this secondary make the transition after allowing those previously mentioned four defensive backs to walk in free agency.

         So far, real good.

         "He's in a much better place," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says. "(Last year) he did a good job being out there and trying to practice and trying to play. But he wasn't himself."

          Some of that was physical. Some more was mental. He just didn't seem to have his edge, the very reason he's lasted this long in the league. He is, by nature, always looking for those chips to place on his shoulder for motivation.

         But so far this year he seems more at ease. He's smiling more. Been more cordial. Doesn't seem to be mad at the world.

         Plus, his play is more fluid. He's playing the corner with more confidence. Same in the slot, where he moves inside from right corner when the Cowboys go to their nickel defense. His coverage has generally been better. He's getting to the ball.

         "He's just active, he's just active and getting around the ball," Garrett has noticed so far. "He's just active, makes a lot of plays on the ball."

          But hear now, this is as important. Scandrick seems more engaged with his teammates. These young guys, especially with the departure of defensive co-captain Church, need some veteran leadership back there. Look, Byron Jones is in just his third season, and he is starting to step to the plate. Jeff Heath, in his fifth year, is on the verge of starting for the first time at the other safety position.

         Carroll, who has been manning the other corner spot, and while in his eighth NFL season, is a newcomer to the team. Brown is in just his second season. The rest of those guys back there are either newcomers (Blanton) or rookies/first-year players.

         Guidance is needed, and for maybe the first time in his career, Scandrick needs – and seems readily willing – to take care of these other guys.

         "Again," Garrett insists, "he's got a spirit that's contagious."

         Better his spirit being contagious back there than those hamstring strains.

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