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Star-Telegram.com

Cowboys put youth on the line in major overhaul

Posted Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011

By Carlos Mendez

cmendez@star-telegram.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jerry Jones is a smiler. But his smiles are never bigger than when a gamble works.

And, boy, he smiled big Saturday night.

His team started three rookies in the offensive line in a preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings and lived to tell about it.

Quarterback Tony Romo, taking snaps from rookie center Kevin Kowalski for the first time, was sacked only once, threw for 141 yards and led two scoring drives in the first half of the Dallas Cowboys' 23-17 victory.

"He did play well. I know y'all noticed that," the Cowboys' owner said of Kowalski, an undrafted free agent center from Toledo. "He gave a good account of himself. I don't even need to look at the tape to know he did play well. We had a lot of those young players do some very good things."

Kowalski played all four quarters, replacing Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode, whom the Cowboys sidelined as Jones attempts to work out a reduced salary with the veteran, or perhaps a trade.

It's serious business, but the Cowboys were grinning in relief after the game.

Asked what he needed to do to prepare to play with his new center, Romo said, "I had to learn his name. Just kidding."

Jones, too, couldn't help beaming about the other line rookies -- left guard Bill Nagy, a seventh-round pick, and right tackle Tyron Smith, the team's first-round pick.

It looks like you're rebuilding the line, a reporter asked, and Jones gave a playful look.

"You think so?" he said to laughter.

Kowalski probably won't remain the starting center. He'll likely give way to second-year player Phil Costa, himself an undrafted free agent.

Costa missed the game because of a strained knee ligament suffered in practice last week, but Jones expects him to be ready for the season opener on Sept. 11 at the New York Jets.

If Costa is at center, he will be the third new starter on the offensive line. It would give the Cowboys -- who released veterans Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo before training camp -- a combined 14 years' experience on the front five. Last year, it was 36. The new average age would be 25.2. Last year, it was 30.2.

Jones said the Cowboys did think carefully about going with an unproven center because they didn't want to get anybody hurt. In the end, Jones had to trust that Kowalski, Nagy and Smith were ready.

"They've gotten most of the snaps in camp. They've excelled. They've done well," he said. "You've seen the improvement with almost the naked eye. Tonight was a good example of it. You can certainly compete with first groups with those guys in there."

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett saw no major problems with Kowalski's play.

"The biggest thing you look at when you're playing a new center is, 'Does he take care of the ball?'" Garrett said. "It seemed like he and Tony were pretty much on the same page. Not having a lot of experience working together, any time you don't have the ball on the ground, that's a positive. I thought he handled the shotgun snaps very well, and it didn't seem like there was a tremendous amount of penetration or issues in the pass protection in our offensive line."

Kowalski said he learned three hours before kickoff he would be playing. But he didn't know he'd be playing the whole game. Then again, the only other center options on the roster are Nagy and David Arkin.

"I was surprised," Kowalski said. "I was hoping I could go out and allow this team to be successful, allow this team to have a chance by just doing my job."

Nagy said, "For him to step in like that, on short-term notice, I think he did a very good job. I'm proud of the kid, for sure. He definitely stepped up."

Bennett out 2-4 weeks

Cowboys backup tight end Martellus Bennett likely will miss at least the season opener against the New York Jets, and he might be out longer. A high ankle sprain will keep Bennett in the training room for 2-4 weeks.

Bennett was having a solid camp before his injury Saturday night against the Vikings. He has 68 catches for 702 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons since the Cowboys made him a second-round pick.

John Phillips likely will take over as the backup tight end in Bennett's absence.

Staff writer Charean Williams contributed to this report.

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407

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