Sunday, May 09, 2010

Commentary: Cowboys get talent in out-of-way places

Three of draft picks this year were from smaller colleges.

IRVING — Akwasi Owusu-Ansah played football at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The school is in Indiana, Pa., which proclaims itself the "Christmas Tree Capital of the World."

Unless you are driving in from Homer City, all roads do not lead to Indiana, Pa. But the Dallas Cowboys' scouting staff made it to Indiana and found a player.

"If you can play, they're going to find you," Owusu-Ansah said. "That's happened in my situation."

It's the same with Sean Lissemore, a hyper-active defensive lineman from William & Mary. The Cowboys took Lissemore in the seventh round of the NFL draft, three rounds after selecting Owusu-Ansah, a safety. For good measure, the Cowboys made an extra effort to sign New Hampshire tight end Scott Sicko as an undrafted free agent.

In doing all of that, the Cowboys returned to their drafting roots.

Through smarts and plain, old shoe leather, the Cowboys for decades went off the beaten track to find and draft talented players. The first player to fit this definition was defensive tackle Jethro Pugh out of Elizabeth (N.C.) City State in the 1964 draft. The list, which includes Hall of Fame offensive tackle Rayfield Wright and numerous Pro Bowlers, grew from there.

The current administration embraces the same philosophy.

"You scout the skill of the player, not the school," said Tom Ciskowski, the Cowboys' director of pro and college scouting.

Even if that puts the Cowboys in a minority.

The NFL draft can be a paint-by-numbers exercise. Go to the big-time schools and pick their players. It's not hard to find a player at Oklahoma, or Texas, or Florida. It's safe.

Of the 255 players taken in last month's draft, 196 came from the six BCS conferences and Notre Dame. Another 36 hailed from the other Football Bowl Subdivision conferences.

The other 23 picks came from out-of-the-way spots. Division I Football Championship Subdivision-level schools produced 18 picks, including Lissemore. Division II had five players chosen, including Owusu-Ansah. Division III and the NAIA were blanked.

Jacksonville built its draft around players from the lower levels, selecting four FCS players. The Cowboys, Arizona, Buffalo and Tennessee were the only other clubs with lower-level picks, taking two players each.

"When you see somebody that has some good size and good speed such as Akwasi, that starts mitigating the school size," Cowboys owner-general manager Jerry Jones said.

There is a risk in this for the Cowboys. They had only six picks in this year's draft. That means they devoted 33 percent of their picks to players whose level of competition last season ranged from Kutztown (Pa.) State (Owusu-Ansah) to Villanova (Lissemore). It's a big, big jump from there to the NFL.

The Cowboys know that and factor level of competition into the evaluations for all draft-eligible players. For the Cowboys, Owusu-Ansah and Lissemore graded out high enough to be drafted.

Now, they have to show it on the field. With only six picks, the Cowboys cannot afford to miss.

"They've been the big fish in a small pond," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. "They're going to have to step it up to get to the next level, but I think they have the ability to do that."

The Cowboys' grand plan calls for Lissemore to serve as an understudy and learn from the veteran linemen. Owusu-Ansah, limited while he recovers from surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder, could have a more immediate impact as a returner. The Cowboys project him as a free safety in the making.

Owusu-Ansah and Lissemore fit the profiles of NFL players who spring from unexpected places.

Both were late bloomers physically. Owusu-Ansah, the son of Ghanaian immigrants, had the extra disadvantage of not picking up the game until eighth grade.

Both are intelligent. Both are relentless. Both carry the memory of being snubbed by the big-boy schools coming out of high school. Lissemore still has letters from schools such as Michigan offering the possibility of a walk-on tryout.

"Williams & Mary defeated Virginia," said Lissemore, referring to last season's victory against a BCS school. "I think that alone shows the comparison of talent and athleticism between the two leagues."

It's more personal to Owusu-Ansah, who grew up in the shadow of the Ohio State campus. He felt the sting of rejection each time his beloved Buckeyes played.

"That chip on my shoulder is probably going to last until I'm done playing football," he said. "I can play with the big boys. That's probably the biggest question. Can you play with the big boys? I absolutely believe I can."

College pedigrees are forgotten now. The Cowboys learned long ago that it pays to be an equal-opportunity employer.