OXNARD, Calif. – A tire and a competition with a group of tight ends start the story of how far Lance Dunbar's come since arriving in the NFL.
Head coach Jason Garrett used an example from the offseason to demonstrate the work ethic of the former North Texas running back, who's been one of the positive surprises of camp thus far.
"We do a drill in the offseason with Coach (Mike) Woicik," Garrett said. "It's tire flipping. It's part of their conditioning. It's really good for leverage. We create competitive situations, four guys are over here, four guys are over here, kind of a relay race."
As Garrett made his way out to where the players were performing the conditioning drills, he saw Dunbar with the group of tight ends.
"All these big, tall guys who are long, strong, explosive, and literally the tire looks bigger than Dunbar," he said. "I'm like, 'Who drew the short straw here?' He goes out there and he does that drill as well as anybody in that group, and that's just the way he plays. He's a little guy, but he's quick, he's explosive, he knows what to do and he loves playing football, and you see it every day."
What everyone sees every day at camp is his quickness, his agility and his ability to make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. Garrett also complimented Dunbar's vision, which is necessary for a player that stands just 5-foot-8. He said sometimes Dunbar's stature can cause some problems in pass protection, but Dunbar never backs down from sticking his head in to challenge an oncoming rush.
Dunbar recognizes his diminutive size. He recognizes that because of that size, he can be cornered into a specific and narrow role as a "change of pace" back. He also recognizes that he needs to do a little extra to alter those opinions.
"I've got to be persistent, keep doing what I do," Dunbar said. "When I do get the chances, make the best of them."
Sunday's scrimmage gave him that opportunity. Throughout training camp, Dunbar's appeared to be the quickest back to hit the hole on running plays. Before the scrimmage even began, Dunbar took a handoff between the tackles, made a move and quickly darted for 20 yards in team drills.
Dunbar knows the Cowboys drafted a running back in Joseph Randle to fill the No. 2 spot at his position. But Randle's time off recovering from thumb surgery gave Dunbar the chance for increased reps with the backups, and even some time with the starters.
He knows the odds of getting playing time are stacked against him. Dunbar uses that as fuel, the same way he did last training camp and offseason when he was a longshot to make the team. He'd go on to rush for 105 yards and a touchdown in the fourth and final preseason game in 2012, making the team and playing in 12 games.
The same spark he demonstrated last training camp has carried over to this year. Only now, he's more familiar with the playbook and what it takes to stay on a roster in the NFL. He said this offseason he's stayed the same weight – he's listed at 188 pounds – but he's stronger and quicker than he was last season.
"I feel like I'm a whole different person," Dunbar said. "I know what they expect of me. I know what I'm doing now. I feel more comfortable. You get better as a player."
Garrett and running backs coach Gary Brown already expect Dunbar to be a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. Garrett commended Dunbar's understanding for how to release, get leverage, take the right angles and get separation as a route runner out of the backfield.
But both coaches have a greater vision for Dunbar than simply a pass catcher, and the running back will get a chance to respond to more opportunities in a variety of roles.
"We don't want to pigeon-hole him," Brown said. "We want to give him some outside runs, the draws – a lot of stuff. Like I said, none of this stuff is determined yet."
So far, Dunbar's answered most of the calls as a running back and special teams player. Dunbar knows he wouldn't have made the team last year had he not been able to contribute in the latter area. He recorded six tackles on special teams and was used as a kick returner.
He hopes he can return kicks again this year, but if he continues to demonstrate his unique skill set in the backfield, it's possible he'll be contributing just as much on offense as special teams.
"He's had a really good camp," Brown said. "He's into it. He studies. He's practiced hard. He's doing exactly what we want him to do. "
Dunbar admitted he's felt like he's stood out at camp, but he doesn't have time to dwell on that.
"I don't want to stop," he said. "I want to keep doing what I've got to do."
Photos from Sunday's Blue-White Scrimmage >>