Spagnola: Thank This Rookie For Providing A Little Camp Walk On Sunshine

OXNARD, Calif. – Here is the deal following the completion of the Dallas Cowboys 17th day of practice and 25th day out here at training camp.

         We certainly could spend time belaboring how many of the Cowboys players will not play Sunday night in Preseason Game No. 2, although that might take all night since the starting offensive line will be missing three of five starters and possibly four; the linebacking unit will be two starters down and really all three if you want to count Rolando McClain; the defensive line very well could be without two of its four starters; the offense will be missing Dez Bryant and who knows if Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett will even chance playing Tony Romo behind a makeshift offensive line or if it's even worthwhile to send out the top three running backs.

         Especially since we could groan on and on about the suspect field conditions the Cowboys might find at Levi's Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers forced to re-sod the entire unplayable field on Wednesday. That caused many to wonder just how well roots can take hold in only five days at what's being advertised as "America's Most Tech Savvy" stadium, yet can't seem to grow grass.

         Now, I also could turn into Mr. Reasonable to wonder aloud why in the world is Dez Bryant's name the only one I hear and read associated with the Rams-Cowboys brawl earlier in the week when there was the entire Cowboys defensive squad along with all but one of the Rams' 90 roster guys over there reigning anarchy down on the field to the extent of having to call off the rest of the joint practice.

         And this certainly would be the appropriate time to mention the Cowboys unsettled situation at the backup tackle spot, where Darrion Weems or someone else possibly named Wetzel or Dill must step up right now or force the Cowboys to consider moving Pro Bowl guard Zach Martin or rookie La'el Collins out there in an emergency situation or … discovering soon someone of capability landing on the waiver wire.

         But you know what? It's such a balmy chamber of commerce Friday out here in Southern California, 75 degrees, breeze coming in off the Pacific, that I thought, what the heck (and stealing a line), let's go walking on sunshine for a change, and find something to feel good about.

         Right?

         These last four weeks haven't been totally doom and gloom for the Cowboys. There have been some rays of sunshine. Tony Romo looks his best. Greg Hardy is an absolute load. Morris Claiborne appears healthy. Seen Lee looks up to his old self. Devin Street is coming on. The Cowboys might have found Anthony Hitchens.2 in fourth-round pick Damien Wilson. No one can cover Cole Beasley, not the Cowboys nor the Chargers or Rams.

         Tell you what, though. This Randy Gregory? Just might become the all-time steal of the draft, sort of the Randy Moss heist from 1998 when 20 teams, including the Cowboys, passed on the recalcitrant wide receiver who had been dismissed from two colleges before landing at Marshall University only to blossom into one of the NFL's all-time best.

         Gregory's collegiate baggage, nearly testing positive for marijuana one too many times for Nebraska's liking and at the NFL Scouting Combine evidently not to every NFL team's first-round liking, caused the first-round talent to plummet into the second round, all the way to pick 28, passed over 59 times to that point.

         Cowboys owner Jerry Jones remembers it well.

         "I went back in our draft room, we were on the clock. Randy Gregory had been passed over in the first round. We were at our pick in the second, which was down the line," Jones says of their 60th pick. "I got him on the phone, I said to Gregory, 'Randy, it's our time to pick,' and he said, 'Mr. Jones, pick me, please pick me.' He said, 'If you'll pick me, I'll do everything right. I won't let you down. There's nothing you can ask me to do that I won't do. I want to show you I can be mature, be a credit to the Cowboys.'

         "And he's shown it every step of the way."

         Many a team had red-flagged him, as in do-not-touch. My eyebrows were quite arched, too, when the Cowboys rolled the dice on Gregory, but at least not with a first-round pick they might have been tempted to use since Jones has repeatedly admitted their inability to pressure the quarterback last season (28 sacks, fewest since 2002) being the ultimate reason the Cowboys lost that playoff game in Green Bay after the 12-4 season.

         Man, so far, so great, although not to get ahead of ourselves since this will be only the second preseason game coming up at 7 p.m. back home on CBS-11. Fitting the kid for that gold jacket just yet might be a tad premature.

         But here is what you see out here in practice, and increasingly in that first preseason game. His pass-rush skills are unique. He has an ability to contort his body, twist, get real low coming around the corner on the way to the quarterback. He is not as big as he's going to be nor as strong, but already they talk of his "heavy hands," meaning them mitts pack a wallop.

         What you probably don't hear much of is just how sharp he seems. How he seemingly enjoys interviews, will look you in the eye and speak with perspective. Check this out when asked how far he's come since arriving in training camp on July 28:

         "I always preach about hand placement, getting off the ball. Everyone said I had a good get-off in college, but looking back on it, I really didn't. I did a lot of thinking. Our defensive scheme was more read, attacking, so I really didn't get off the ball like I'd like to.

"But the scheme Coach [Rod] Marinelli has here gives me a chance to really show what I can do to get off the ball. That's one of the main things he's wanted me to do coming in, and I've gotten a lot better at that since rookie camp. Hand placement, hand speed, really focus on the offensive lineman's hands, shoulders, when he's turning, developing countermoves, and not just trying to win on athleticism.

         "A guy like Tyron Smith has really helped me with something like that because if he gets his hands on you, he's big and athletic, strong, he's got good feet, so you're not going to win on athleticism. You have to win on the technical things. … The big thing is getting in the film room and watching him, watching how he sets, and just trying to get better in all aspects."

         Seriously, his words, all in a row.[embeddedad0]

         And most impressive is the fact he understands that when rushing the quarterback, playing defensive end is not all about brute strength, or cat-like quickness. He understands how important the hands are, something Cowboys Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White became a proponent of during his playing days, endlessly taking martial arts classes and then coming back around The Ranch to teach the nuances of proper hand technique.

         But my word, how'd the 22-year-old grow so wise?

"I was lucky and blessed to have good college coaches. Even in junior college I had Albert Gibson. He played D-Line for the Steelers for a few years, so I had NFL talent teaching me, even at that level. I was blessed to have that at the junior college level and then in college great coaching that really knew how to break down the position, how pass-rushing goes," Gregory said. "And then coming from there to the Cowboys where I have Coach Marinelli and Leon Lett teaching the finer details of the position, it's only going to make me better, as long as I take everything in and apply it on the field."

Marinelli, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, thinks the world of Gregory. Says he's a smart kid, one with exceptional raw talent.

Lett, a guy who had to learn about hand importance, first from teammate Charles Haley and also from White, says Gregory is far ahead of where he was upon arriving at The Ranch as a seventh-round pick in 1991 from Emporia State.

"He's picked it up pretty fast," Lett says. "He already has the foot speed, and now his hands have speeded up, they're nice."

So he's worth watching Sunday night. No. 94, if you didn't know already. He'll be on the right side of the defensive line, the relentless one, a helmeted Energizer Rabbit. And if you have a chance, keep an eye on his hands.

"Leon, even when Charles Haley came in, and Randy came in, he does a little drill that even to this day we use, picked up on it when he came in and talked to us," Gregory says of the importance of hands in the game. "I think the best thing you can do as a rookie is just embrace everything, do a lot of observing, watch plays, watch other players, what they do, how it works."

So in other words observe and absorb?

"Best thing you can do as a rookie," he says with a big smile.

Probably causing you to smile, too, providing the true meaning of walking on sunshine, and frankly for a change, don't it feel good for real.

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