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As one of four seventh-round draft picks, it would be understandable for Ken Bishop to get overlooked a little when discussing rookies who could end up making an impact on the Cowboys' 2014 season.
Of course, once you see the Northern Illinois product in action, however, it's difficult to miss the 6-1, 308-pound defensive tackle with uncanny quickness and agility, even if he was the 251st player chosen overall back in May.
Early in his first NFL training camp, Bishop looked solid lining up with the second defensive unit behind veteran Nick Hayden on the depth chart, so it appears as if his adjustment process to the pro game is moving along nicely.
"Everything has been good so far. I've been able to catch on to the system and just try to get better every day," said Bishop, who played two years at Northern Illinois following two at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa. "The scheme is not that much different. I played a 4-3 all through college. My first year at Northern, it was kind of the same scheme, the same mentality defensively, so it hasn't been that hard to catch on."
Bishop clearly has an opportunity to secure himself a roster spot, but he will have to earn it on the field with his performance throughout training camp and, perhaps even more importantly, in the preseason games. He's ready for the challenge.
"Probably just make the least mistakes as possible," Bishop said regarding the key to him seizing a spot. "Not as much how many good plays you can make, it's probably about how many bad plays can you not make. That's probably my biggest adjustment, just making the right plays at the right time.
"I feel like my quickness will help. This defense is all about speed. Up front, Coach [Rod] Marinelli stresses speed, so that's something that I've got to focus – be able to attack off the ball fast and react fast as well."
And while he has plenty of tough competitors that he'll have to beat out in order to carve out a niche for himself in the Dallas defense, Bishop points out that he can't fixate on what any of the other guys do.
"Just focus on myself, just do your job, just try to critique myself as much as possible," he said of his mindset. "I'm my biggest critic, so I know that if I stay the course, I'll be fine. I try not to worry about anybody else except myself."
After an outstanding senior year for a 12-2 Northern Illinois squad last season in which he amassed 70 tackles, an unusually high total for a nose guard, seven tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and even two interceptions, Bishop was a bit disappointed he wasn't selected earlier in the draft. But, that apparent slight will only further fuel his desire to prove the doubters wrong, something he's had to do over and over again in his career.
"No matter where I would have went, I would still have a chip on my shoulder," admitted Bishop, who was picked right around where he was projected to by most pre-draft rankings. "Deep down inside, I know what I'm capable of, and I feel that as a D-Lineman, you've got to have a chip on your shoulder anyways. I always have a chip on my shoulder."
His defensive coordinator the past two years at Northern Illinois believes that Bishop's determination will serve him well at the next level.
"Ken's been a real pleasure for us to work with in our program here at NIU," said Jay Niemann. "He was a tremendously explosive player at our level and had an impact on the outcome of games. How that translates into the NFL is uncertain – he's obviously dealing with a different caliber of athlete there – but we were very pleased with his production, and how he went about his business, and everything that he did for our program. He was a whole lot of fun for us to coach."
And that makes him just the type of player likely to thrive under Marinelli because those are some of the key attributes the Cowboys defensive coordinator zeroes in on first.
"You coach the man first, then you coach the player. That's what I've always done," Marinelli said. "Responsibility, accountability first, the things that it takes to play. If you go back and talk about the great players, the really good ones, you never talk about the talent. It's their motors, their tempo. That's what you try to instill in these guys. You have a bad play? You've got to let it go. A bad play, a bad practice? Let it go, man-up, play the next play. You're trying to constantly work that part of it because I think if you miss that step, the talent has a chance to fail."
That chip on Bishop's shoulder is an important part of who he is, helping him overcome steep odds dating back to his days at Piper High School in Sunrise, Fla., a suburb of Miami.
He was still growing, but Bishop was a force in the prep ranks, earning Second Team All-State honors his senior year, even though Piper finished just 3-7.
"He's always had a great work ethic," said Mike Virden, who coached against Piper in high school and later recruited Bishop to Ellsworth Community College as the head coach. "He's been an overachiever. He's had to overcome a lot just to get to where he is, and I think he'll handle (the challenge of making the NFL) quite well. I can't imagine the coaches around him not appreciating just his physical tools and then all the other things that come with it."
At Ellsworth, Bishop continued his process of developing into a strong defensive lineman, totaling 64 tackles as a freshman, ranking third on a team that finished 8-2, while also blossoming into a weight room legend.
"I think everywhere Kenny goes, people are amazed," said Virden, referring to his unique combination of size, strength and agility. "They just go, 'Wow.' You kind of see it, you kind of know it, but until you have the guy there and you're with him every day and you watch him practice and you see him off the field and you see what he can do in the weight room … he's a 400-plus pound bencher, he's a 600-plus pound squatter, he could power clean probably as much as they'll probably let him. That's just what Kenny does."
As a sophomore at Ellsworth, Bishop continued to progress, recording 67 tackles, two sacks, and 2.5 tackles for a loss, but Virden notes that his 6-0 height, shorter than your prototypical nose guard, made it more difficult than it should have been to convince top-level college coaches that Bishop was a worthy transfer candidate.
"Trying to get him recruited out of Ellsworth was crazy," recalled Virden. "I'm talking to some of those Big 12 schools and telling them, 'This is one of the best football players I think I've ever coached. This guy has just got a motor, and he's just amazingly strong.' He could squat and bench the world, and the thing is, he's such a practice player. You watch him on film and he's running guys down from behind, and their comment was, 'I don't know if he's tall enough.' Well, he's stronger than anybody he'll play, he's quicker than anybody he'll play, and he's 300 pounds running around looking like he's 160 pounds."
Bishop ended up enrolling at Northern Illinois, and Niemann was delighted to have him.
"We saw a guy with a lot of potential and a lot of raw talent, that just needed to be molded and streamlined a little bit," Niemann said of NIU's interest in recruiting Bishop. "Once we got him into our program and our system, our D-Line coaches did a great job of making him a little bit more efficient. Ken did a great job of studying our system and learning our fundamentals and techniques, and incorporating them into game-day production."
Bishop fit right in to the Huskies' defense as a junior, compiling 55 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery, helping Northern Illinois go 12-2 and win the Mid-American Conference championship.
"He was definitely a difference-maker up front, and we were able to do some things schematically with him, just because of his ability to run and his size," Niemann said of Bishop. "His explosive power and his strength at our level was not something you saw in the MAC on a regular basis. You could see all that raw potential there. He just hadn't put it into fruition yet. We're just really pleased with how he turned out for us."
Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey was so impressed with Bishop's athleticism that he even utilized him as a fullback for a couple of crucial games at the end of that 2012 season.
He started in the backfield in the MAC championship game against Kent State, while also contributing eight tackles and three tackles for a loss in the Huskies' 44-37 double-overtime victory. [embedded_ad]
Bishop saw action there again in NIU's 31-10 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State. Besides being an enjoyable experience, the chance to line up on the offensive side of the ball also provided some additional perspective on how he approaches playing defense.
"It was a good change. It reminded me of when I played offensive line in high school," Bishop said of his fullback duties. "I appreciated my coach for putting me in that opportunity to show my talent because a lot of guys can't really do that. It was good for me. It helped me be able to see from the other side what they see of the defensive linemen coming in. I had to block D-Ends, so it was a good experience for me."
He hasn't played fullback since, but just getting that little extra bit of knowledge helped him on defense, and Bishop enjoyed an excellent senior year, earning First Team All-MAC honors, although it did end a bit early when he fractured his foot in NIU's Poinsettia Bowl loss to Utah State.
Now that he's healthy again, he just has to combine that experience with his ability to keep learning the pro game, put forth the effort he always has, utilizing his ever-present determination to prove himself, and display his uncanny athleticism on the field when he gets his opportunity. If he can do all of that, he'll end up contributing to the Cowboys' 2014 season.
Sure, it might be a tall order, but it's nothing Bishop hasn't done before. Plus, he's got a lot of people pulling for him to succeed.
"I'm so happy for him, just so happy, because he earned it the hard way," Virden said. "He's still in that boat, but I don't think it fazes this kid."