. When the Dallas Cowboys drafted running back Joseph Randle in the fifth round, it was considered a foregone conclusion that he would be the team’s primary backup behind starter DeMarco Murray.
And that might be the case, considering Randle is the only backup with the skills to be a full-time starter if something happened to Murray, who has missed nine games the past two seasons.
But the back who has impressed the most through the first week of training camp is former North Texas star Lance Dunbar.
Dunbar, who played at Haltom High School, has gone from being an overlooked undrafted free agent of a year ago to someone being targeted for a big role in the Cowboys’ offense as a third-down pass receiver and change-of-pace back, if not the primary backup
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At 5-foot-8, 188 pounds, Dunbar has had to fight the stereotype of being too small to make it his entire life, so he plays with a chip on shoulder. To his credit, he is conceding nothing to Randle.
“I want to establish myself every time I get on the field, draft pick or not,” Dunbar said. “I want to get out there and show them that I can play. That’s what I’m trying to do. Me being a small back, most people would say I couldn’t do it. I have to prove and show them that I could.”
Dunbar made a mark on the Cowboys last year, making the practice squad as a rookie and then playing a few games because of injuries. The coaches liked his speed and thought he could add some pop to the offense.
But the Cowboys learned firsthand about his work ethic, will and determination during the off-season.
“He’s just a good football player ... he just is,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “We do a drill in the off-season with strength coach Coach [Mike] Woicik, tire-flipping. It’s a part of their conditioning, it’s really good for leverage. We create competitive situations — four guys are over here, four guys are over here — kind of a relay race. It’s part of the off-season workouts.
“I go over by the tennis court there at Valley Ranch, and Dunbar’s mixed in there with all the tight ends — all these big, tall guys who are long, strong, explosive. And literally the tire looks bigger than Dunbar. And I’m like ‘Who drew the short straw here?’ And he goes out there and he does that drill as well as anybody in that group. And that’s just the way he plays.”
Garrett said that Dunbar has brought that same attitude to training camp, and it has showed in his play.
“He gets better every single day and it really goes to the kind of young man he is, how important it is to him,” Garrett said. “He just works at it, and he has great juice, got a bounce in his step all the time, has a smile on his face. He loves to play football.”
Dunbar said his focus in the off-season was getting bigger and stronger. He said he also became a better student of the game in order to become a better runner.
One thing running backs coach Gary Brown emphasizes with Dunbar is being a more decisive runner and do less dancing.
“Sometimes I get caught up trying to make a run for myself,” Dunbar said. “They want me to one cut and go. That’s what I’m trying to do. Now that I know where the hole is going to be and know the defenses better, I have gotten better at it.”
He has improved so much that only wide receiver Dez Bryant has made more impressive plays in training camp on offense.
Dunbar has routinely planted his foot and darted upfield for big yardage, leaving defenders gasping and fans screaming.
Still, the question of Dunbar’s size is one the Cowboys can’t overlook.
Blocking remains a challenge, and the Cowboys are looking for ways to get the most of Dunbar while not making him a liability.
The Cowboys want to get him the ball in space, whether as a runner or receiver out of the backfield, and he is getting a lot of work with quarterback Tony Romo and the third-down offense.
“Well, you certainly want to figure out what his role is and you try every day to make sure you’re giving him a chance to work at that role,” Garrett said.
“He’s a very good pass receiver. He just has a good understanding, for a young player, he has a really good understanding of how to release, how to work guys, he understands leverage, angles, he’s quick and explosive and can separate really well as a route runner.”
He also won’t be overlooked.
Quarterback Tony Romo is excited about the juice that Dunbar's speed brings.
"He’s had a great off-season," Romo said. "I’m excited about just having the ability to move. DeMarco is such a special player that the ability to have a guy who can come in and hopefully do some things that still help us and have some juice. Dunbar has that. Speed. Explosiveness. Another gear I guess you could say. A little start and stop. Quick stop. All those things. He has that, and that’s a good thing."
It's a good thing to no longer be overlooked.
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760