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Spagnola: The New Dr. J Raising Eyebrows


OXNARD, Calif. – When reports surfaced earlier this week about David Irving not showing up on time for training camp, then his absence made more explicit when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones furthered that he did not expect Irving to participate at all, was your reaction the same as mine?

Like taking the heel of the palm on my right hand and smacking myself in the forehead?

In exasperation, thinking, Seriously? Like, you've got to be kidding me?

Then it was, asking myself, Now what do they do for a 3-technique at defensive tackle?

Well, think I've got the answer, and it's been staring at us for the past three months.

They do Dr. J.

No, not that Dr. J. Julius Irving is not returning for a second career, this time in football. This is defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's self-proclaimed Dr. J.

Jihad Ward, thus the newest Dr. J since Rod didn't want to mess around trying to correctly pronounce Juh-Hahd.

Been telling anyone who has wanted to listen for the last couple of months about the defensive lineman the Cowboys acquired during the draft in a trade from the Raiders for wide receiver Ryan Switzer. My gosh, the former University of Illinois defensive end, the Raiders' second-round pick in 2016, had been filling in when Irving went MIA during the offseason workouts.

And sure seemed No. 51 looked the part. He's big, but rather sleek looking at 6-5, 290 pounds. He's first-step quick at the line of scrimmage. And he's hungry to prove the Raiders either misused him as a 3-4 defensive end or that they gave up on the guy too soon.

But these impressions were based on OTA and minicamp workouts when he was working with the first-team defense. But no pads, right? No tackling. And me, I learned from Marinelli that "pads are everything," causing me to post a self-imposed restraining order:

Let's wait to see what happens when the pads come on.

Well, even though the pads don't come for the first time out here at training camp until Saturday afternoon, there seems to be this quiet optimism swelling over his possibilities.

Ask head coach Jason Garrett. And as is his custom when you strike a chord with him, his eyebrows arch upward and he shakes his head up and down, as if to say, Hey, you're on to something.

Then says, "I like him."

Ask Marinelli, he the pad guy, right? He the one who professes to reserve judgment until real football starts taking place.

Well, after Thursday's first day of camp practice, encompassing a mere walk-through practice in the morning and the non-padded practice in the afternoon, the usually reserved Marinelli says Ward has been impressive from the first day he arrived at The Star, and then, get this:

"I'd be surprised if he doesn't keep it going in pads."

Now, maybe the Cowboys indeed are on to something, and they sorely need to be since, one, it's uncertain when Irving will return to the team, having been placed on reserve/non-football injury, and two, it's certain no matter when he does, Irving will still be serving that four-game suspension to start the season.

And as far as I can tell, other than Ward, the only other guy suited to decently play the 3-technique is Maliek Collins, having played at a high level there during his rookie season in 2016, only to have Irving's impressive return last year force him over to the 1-technique tackle where he played through a stress fracture to his fifth metatarsal in his foot nearly all season long. And at that, he's now on PUP after going ahead and breaking that surgically-repaired stressed-out bone in the offseason, requiring a second surgery. He likely will miss most of camp.

After that, really, the only other potential candidate to fill in at the 3-technique would be Tyrone Crawford, now considered the starting right defensive end, where he ended up out of necessity last year when the Cowboys were desperate to find someone to set the edge against the run.


So, see, the Cowboys just need Dr. J to cash in on this opportunity landing right in his lap.

"I'm so excited," Ward says to be here with the Cowboys. "I can't express myself."

This fascination with Ward isn't some passing fancy. Marinelli and the Cowboys became enthralled with him while coaching the North Squad at the 2016 Senior Bowl. Marinelli loved the combination of his size and quickness off the ball. And while Ward played defensive end in the Illini's 4-3 defense and DE in the Raiders' 3-4, right from the start Marinelli envisioned Ward playing the 3-technique in his version of the 4-3 defense.

But the Cowboys never got the chance to draft Ward, deciding to use the third pick in the second round that year on Jaylon Smith. And by time they got around to their fourth pick in the third round (Collins), the Illinois defensive end had had been swept up by Oakland with the 13th pick in the second round.

Ward started 13 games for the Raiders as a rookie, but foot surgery in the early summer of 2017 got him off to a slow start, and he ended up playing in just five games.

Nevertheless, when the Raiders, with new coach Jon Gruden in charge, called with the trade proposal, the Cowboys quickly did their due diligence, touching bases immediately with fired Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, the former Cowboys middle linebacker (1989-91). Del Rio vouched for Ward, known to friends and family as "Haddie."

Trade made.

Man made happy.

"Everything here is more simple," Ward said of Marinelli's system. "With the Raiders, and I really don't want to talk about them, but you know, I mean, they had me playing slow. But now the scheme I'm playing in, this Cowboys scheme, you're not thinking as much. You just want to go."

Even former longtime Cowboys scouting director Gil Brandt says this system better suits Ward's talents of just getting up the field instead of what the Raiders read-and-react style up front was asking of him.

So as is becoming my accustomed answer these days about all the questions confronting the Cowboys this training camp, when it comes to Ward, we'll see. And the seeing is going to begin in earnest when the pads come on Saturday, also realizing the first preseason game is just 13 days away.

But if the early reading of these tea leaves is accurate, smacking yourself in the forehead over this defensive tackle frustration just might turn into some yeah, we-got-this hand rubbing.