Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Cowboys' Spencer taking it to the next level

by Tom Orsborn - Express-News

OXNARD, Calif. — Anthony Spencer can't get over how much talent surrounds him on the practice field at Dallas Cowboys training camp.

“Every day you come out here, you have to bring your A-game,” Spencer said. “You can't be out here half-steppin,' or they are definitely going to get up on you.”

Funny thing about it, “they” say the same about Spencer, the team's first-round draft pick last year.

Finally acclimated to the nuances of playing outside linebacker after four seasons as a defensive end at Purdue, Spencer seems primed for a highly productive sophomore campaign.

“He's night and day from what he did last year,” said Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, who also regularly faces Pro Bowl outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis in practice.

“Anthony is tough to block,” Witten said. “I'm not going to put him in DeMarcus' category, because DeMarcus is an animal. But Anthony is very good with his hands and very explosive.

“He's as good a Sam (strongside) linebacker as I've gone against the last couple of years.”

When Ellis missed all of training camp and the first three games last season while recovering from an Achilles' tendon injury, Spencer started the first six games to join Lee Roy Jordan (1963), Robert Jones (1992) and Ware (2005) as the only rookie linebackers in franchise history to start a season opener.

Although Ellis started the final 10 games, Spencer continued to contribute, finishing the season with 28 tackles, three sacks and seven pressures.

All in all, it was a solid rookie season. But from the looks of what he's done so far in Oxnard, Spencer appears headed for something far better than solid this season.

“He looks better than he did last year, and I thought he did a lot of good things last year,” coach Wade Phillips said. “He seems a lot more confident and seems to know what he's doing. He's has had an outstanding camp.

“I'm looking forward to him playing a lot this year and doing some good things for us.”

Linebackers coach Reggie Herring called Spencer the camp's most consistent linebacker.

“He's gaining confidence daily,” Herring said. “He's becoming more of a complete player — run defense, pass defense, pass rush. It's starting to click for him.”

With his quick first step and improved hand technique, Spencer is shedding blockers with Ware-like regularity.

“He's very instinctive, and he knows how to separate and run to the football,” Herring said. “He's really becoming a really sound player technique-wise.”

Said Phillips: “He's one of the hardest outside backers to block, and I'm including DeMarcus Ware.”

All the praise Spencer has received in camp hasn't gone to his head.
“I'm still a work in progress, but I definitely feel like I am better than I was last year,” Spencer said. “All I want to do is be more productive.”

Ware, who made the same defensive end-to-outside linebacker transition, says that shouldn't be a problem for Spencer.

“Spencer was a great raw player last season, but now he's figuring out what the offense is doing and exactly where he fits in the defense,” Ware said. “He's making a lot of plays now. He's getting it.”

It hasn't hurt that Spencer has Ware and Ellis, two of the top edge rushers in the league, as role models.

“They've taught me how to be a professional,” Spencer said.

That Spencer credits Ellis may come as a surprise to some, considering Ellis, in light of Spencer's progress, has expressed concerns about his role. With Spencer coming on and the Cowboys' desire to increase his role, speculation is running rampant that Ellis' playing time could soon be limited to obvious passing situations.

But Ellis, who returned to practice Monday after missing five workouts with a sore back, said he's always wanted Spencer to succeed.

“I'm as happy as anyone about Anthony's progress,” Ellis said. “I want everybody to be the best they can be. It was never — and never will be — to the point where I don't want him or another guy on this team to progress. I just want to be a major part of this thing, and that's pretty much what it is. I had some concern about my role (in the spring), so Wade and I talked and he said, ‘Greg, I'm not trying to get you out of here. I want you here, and I want you to be a major part of it.' So everything is fine.”

Perhaps. Ellis does turn 33 next month, and earlier in camp, Ware made some comments that seemed to indicate he doesn't want Ellis to complain should Spencer's role increase.

“Our group is all about sacrifices,” the Dallas Morning News quoted Ware as saying. “If somebody can cover better than another guy, we're going to do that. If somebody can pass rush better than another guy, we're going to put him in that situation.

“Greg knows the situation, and I know the situation. Whatever we need to do to get to the Super Bowl, that's what we're going to do.”