July 2, 2012

Summer break is no vacation for Dallas Cowboys

Retention is the key, especially for all the newcomers.

ARLINGTON -- The Dallas Cowboys begin training camp in Oxnard, Calif., at the end of the month.

If they know what's best, they won't take that time completely off.

"Anyone who's been in training camp knows you stick out like a sore thumb if you aren't in shape and prepared," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "I think our guys are mature enough and understand that Sept. 5 is going to be here soon enough. We don't need any extra motivation to stay ready to go."

As Dallas wrapped up its organized team activities and minicamp practices last month, coach Jason Garrett told his players to work hard to retain what they have learned.

"We are awfully good, but we have a long way to go," Garrett said. "We are light years away from where we need to be."

For veterans like Witten and linebacker DeMarcus Ware, staying in shape during the weeks leading up to training camp has become a routine.

"There isn't an off-season," Ware said. "All the guys have to stay together. You can take vacations, and do all of those things, but you still have to work out. You still have to build team camaraderie with guys. Now, you don't have to come in, but guys are still going to come in and study film and do what they have to do."

For younger players, these next several weeks are crucial.

"My advice to the younger players is that this is an important time, it's not a vacation," Witten said. "It's a time that you have to get yourself prepared, physically and mentally. Training camp is going to be tough."

Safety Matt Johnson, Dallas' fourth-round draft pick out of Eastern Washington, participated in the Cowboys rookie minicamp but missed all of OTAs and all but the final minicamp practice.

"From now until training camp, I have to keep in the playbook and stay in contact with the coaches if I have any questions," said Johnson, who will return to Eastern Washington to work out with his college teammates. "I'm going to work out hard and compete with those guys. That's the only way to get better.

"You can gain a lot in this time, but you could lose much more if you don't work. I'm just going to try to get ready for my first training camp."

Some veterans such as Dan Connor, a free-agent linebacker signee from Carolina, will also be studying hard. Connor went through three defensive systems in his first four years in the league. Now he has to continue learning the nuances of the Cowboys playbook.

"I want to stay at the facility in Valley Ranch and stay around as many of the guys as I can," said Connor, who couldn't participate in most of the OTA and minicamp practices because of an injured shoulder. "I'm still learning names. I need to get to know the people and get comfortable."

Defensive end Jason Hatcher has worked hard in the Cowboys' off-season program led by strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik. Too hard, he said, to let up now.

"I think the biggest thing for us is to keep what we have earned," said Hatcher, who plans to work out with heavy leg exercises and lifting three times a week at the Cowboys facility. "Coach Woicik and his staff did a great job with us. I watched my body change. Everybody looked like they were in great shape. We are leaner, moving better. Guys need to stay in that shape."

Brent Shirley, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @bshirley08

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