August 27, 2012

Ex-UNT players chase same roster spot with Cowboys

Former University of North Texas players Lance Dunbar and Jamize Olawale both remain in contention, along with veteran Phillip Tanner, to be the team's third back.

IRVING -- Two college teammates. A shared NFL dream. One roster spot available... maybe.

For former University of North Texas players Lance Dunbar and Jamize Olawale, an extended tour of duty with the Dallas Cowboys depends on what happens in Wednesday's final preseason game in Cowboys Stadium against the Miami Dolphins. Both rookie running backs remain in contention, along with veteran Phillip Tanner, to be the team's third back behind starter DeMarco Murray and backup Felix Jones.

NFL reality suggests only one, and perhaps neither, still will be in possession of a Cowboys playbook once the team pares down to its final 53-man roster Friday. Although the two shared a room in training camp and frequently offer insights to help one another in practice, Dunbar said he and Olawale "never really talked about" the harsh reality that one could end the other's NFL dream when the Cowboys make final cuts.

"We try and stay away from all of that," Dunbar said. "We try and do our best and, if it happens, it happens. The best man wins. We feel like we're both in the same boat."

Asked about being a roster bubble rider, Olawale said: "I don't know. I'll let the coaches sort through all of that. I've gone out there and done my best."

Olawale (6-foot-1, 238 pounds), who began camp in the fullback mix, has shown power and versatility while leading the team in rushing yards during the Cowboys' first two preseason games. Dunbar (5-8, 191), a Haltom High School graduate and the more heralded player at UNT, is more of a breakaway threat. He missed the team's first two preseason games because of a hamstring injury.

In his NFL debut, Dunbar had three carries for 1 yard, as well as a 6-yard reception, in Saturday's 20-19 victory over the St. Louis Rams. He knows he will have to boost that level of production against Miami to survive Friday's cut.

"It's my evaluation. I've been out for too long. I've missed too many games," Dunbar said, summing up the all-or-nothing challenge he faces against the Dolphins. "They're going to evaluate me off the last game. So I've got to come out there and play ball. Do my best."

Olawale probably has more wiggle room Wednesday. His training camp highlights include a powerful 2-yard touchdown run against San Diego and five receptions, including four for 30 yards, against the Chargers. He also plays fullback and played receiver in college.

With most starters expected to watch Wednesday's game from the sidelines, coach Jason Garrett said Monday that the final preseason game looms big for both former UNT players.

"Game action is where the best evaluations happen," Garrett said. "As well as a guy can practice throughout training camp or in the off-season, that's a certain impression you get. But you want to see them play in games.... This is an important game for those guys. This is an important game for our football team to make these final evaluations."

Garrett said the Cowboys plan to make final roster deliberations Thursday -- one day before the NFL deadline -- to enable players and coaches to spend Friday working on game plans for the team's Sept. 5 opener at the New York Giants. That means Wednesday's impression will be the final one made on coaches by Dunbar and Olawale, both of whom have drawn praise from running backs coach Skip Peete during various stages of training camp.

Although coaches have expressed pleasant surprise with Olawale's emergence as a power runner, Olawale said: "That's how I've played my whole life. I started off my career playing running back. I feel like I can help in those situations."

But nothing is certain, least of all a spot on the Cowboys' final roster. Stephen Jones, the Cowboys' director of player personnel, declared Tanner the clear favorite to become the team's third back at the start of training camp. But that was before Tanner broke his hand, missed two games and created opportunities for others.

For Dunbar, the big opportunity comes Wednesday.

"Hopefully, so," Dunbar said. "I'll be ready. I'm looking forward to it."

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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