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Spagnola: These Kids Just Might Be All Right


INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Now this is something.

On Wednesday, out at the Chargers training camp practice site after the Cowboys joint workout with the Bolts, looking this NFL player eye to eye, which don't think has ever taken place in my career covering the NFL, asked, how can a guy my size expect to play in the NFL.

Ka'Vontae Turpin, the rookie with this toothy grin, at just 5-7, 158 pounds, says, "Speed kills."

No lie.

He meant his speed.

Because he just killed it in a Cowboys rare preseason win – head coach Mike McCarthy's first with the Cowboys by the way, suggesting while cracking everyone up he should have gotten a game ball – a 32-18 victory over the Chargers, the Cowboys backups much better than the Chargers backups.

Turpin's first touch, 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Second touch, seven-yard jet sweep.

Third touch, 86-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Talk about the real "Turpin Time."

Second half, Cowboys put him under wraps, took his pads away. His night was done, a rare occurrence for an undrafted rookie having played all over the world and this country after his shortened career at TCU for this chance in the NFL.

Let's put it this way, if the Cowboys must cut their 85-man roster down to the eventual 53 max, it's now down to 52. Because one spot is locked up for sure, Turpin punching his NFL ticket. The rookie from Monroe, La., voted the MVP of the USFL this past season, ain't going nowhere.

"There's a great chance he'll be returning kicks again," McCarthy said, stating the obvious for the Sept. 11 opener against Tampa Bay.

"Got the heart of a lion," Turpin said at halftime, meaning the Cowboys must be putting together a pride of them since Micah Parsons considers himself a lion of a competitor out there.

"I'm an exciting player, and every time I get the ball, there's a big play waiting to happen. I'm happy to be here and take advantage of this opportunity."

I'll say.

Any of you remember Reggie Swinton, the receiver/returner the Cowboys signed the summer of 2001 giving him a call when he was sitting in a car salesman class, figuring he needed to do something else after several false starts trying to latch on to an NFL team. In fact, when telling his story recently in a podcast interview, he said he got a call from a guy from the Cowboys saying he was Todd Williams, wanting to bring him in for a workout.

Swinton thought it was a joke and hung up. Williams, now vice president of operations, called back, basically saying, no really, and the Cowboys found themselves a return man.

Not much different from bringing Turpin in that first week of training camp.

"I'm trying to show everybody I'm a receiver, too," Turpin said. "I can do special teams in my sleep," though this is the first time in his football career he's returned a kickoff and punt for a touchdown in the same game. "That's crazy."

Claims this knack returning kicks is "just in my genes."

You know, it wasn't just Turpin turning the lights out on the Chargers Saturday night, because after the way the young, inexperienced and newcomer players performed in this second preseason game, with one more to go Friday against Seattle at AT&T Stadium, just maybe these kids might be all right.

There were others opening eyes, too.

Quarterback Will Grier, out last week with a groin strain, declared competition on for the backup quarterback job by completing six of 10 passes for 98 yards, his 27 snaps the most since he played in a preseason game with Carolina last year, 17 snaps on Aug. 27 before being released and claimed on Sept. 1 by the Cowboys.

"Still a limited sample size," Grier said, pointing out he went up to Turpin and said, "Man, that's impressive but give me some snaps."

Then there was Jabril Cox, thought to be a steal in the fourth round of the draft last year but tearing his ACL midway through the season. In his most extensive chance to play since, Cox, displayed the speed teams lust after at the linebacker position, also the instincts, finishing with three tackles playing 24 snaps.

How about safety Israel Mukuamu, and not just the interception he plucked on the Chargers first possession of the game while brashly trying to go deep on the fifth play. The second year converted safety also had four tackles and two pass breakups. Rookie Da'Ron Bland admirably filled in manning the slot, and currently a candidate to fill in for injured slot corner Jourdan Lewis (hamstring) if he doesn't return in time for the opener.

Rookie safety Markquese Bell chipped in five tackles, instinctively playing the run up tight, continuing to make an argument for a spot on the 53.

Others making plays, rookie receiver Jalen Tolbert, rookie tight end Jake Ferguson and rookie linebacker Devin Harper. Defensive tackle Trysten Hill notched a triple crown: Sack, forced and recovered fumble, while he continues to push for a spot on the 53 in a hotly contested battle among a crowded interior line field.

And last year's other fourth-round draft choice Josh Ball, who didn't play a snap in 2021, continues to improve with an increase in snaps, trying to convince this coaching staff he's capable of handling the swing tackle responsibility.

Oh, and let's not forget first-round draft choice Tyler Smith, starting once again at left guard, the Cowboys growing closer and closer to deciding the rookie just might be winning the starting spot over veteran Connor McGovern.

Even the kickers had a nice outing, Lirim Hajrullahu and Brett Maher, Hajrullahu connecting on a 35-yeard field goal and one extra point with the veteran Maher making his extra point and coming up just short on his 61-yaed field goal attempt after hitting from that distance in pregame warmups. And the two alternated on six kickoffs, combining for four touchbacks, one returned out of the end zone and one from the 2. Encouraging.

All making for an enjoyable end to training camp, the Cowboys returning to Texas after being gone 27 days, arriving at 5 a.m. Sunday. There still is work to do. But at least there seems to be signs of improvement.

And you know what's starting to transpire? A difficult chore cutting the roster down to 53, especially on the defensive line and somewhat at linebacker with the addition of Anthony Barr, who might be ready for a few snaps on Friday in the final preseason game.

"We're not looking forward to it," McCarthy said of releasing players. "We know it's going to be very difficult and it's going to be extremely competitive. That's what you want on your football team and we felt that way when we put the 90-man roster together . . . we're just trying to give the young guys as many reps as possible. This is what draft and develop looks like.

"But to a man, we're all ready to go home."

Especially Turpin. He has a present to deliver.

"I told my mom the first touchdown I score I'd give her the ball," Turpin said. "I guess she's got two balls now."

The least he can do thanking her for those "genes."

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