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Friday, August 6, 1999

Draft improves Larry Lacewell's image

By Tim Cowlishaw

The Dallas Morning News

WICHITA FALLS, Texas - Shante Carver.

It is a name from the Cowboys' past. He is gone but the name still hovers out there. It is the starting point for any discussion on the merits of Larry Lacewell.

Four week after Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson agreed to dissolve their alliance in 1994, Lacewell found himself in the hot seat on draft day. He had been with the club for two years, but now he was the one making the calls.

Technically, Jones signs off on each pick but the recommendations come from Lacewell. And the first name called out from the Cowboys' war room back in 1994 was Carver's, who was out of football by the end of the 1997 season.

"I'm not going to go on and on about Shante," said Lacewell, who tends to go on and on about everything. "We wanted an end, and we were too quick to pull the trigger. It was like we couldn't live without a defensive end.

"I think over the last few years we've learned to be patient."

And guess what? Over the last two years, there are indications that Lacewell actually knows what he's doing on draft day. Indications, I said, not hard evidence.

Last year's top two picks, Greg Ellis and Flozell Adams, are in this year's starting lineup. The later rounds on the second day brought special teams stars Izell Reese and Darren Hambrick.

The Cowboys seem to like everything about this year's top two picks - again a defensive end and an offensive lineman - in Ebenezer Ekuban and Solomon Page. What's not to like? No one has played a game yet.

But Lacewell insists the Cowboys hit a home run on the second day.

"You're fortunate if you can get guys you still want on the second day," he said. "We had five guys we wanted, and we got two of them - Wane McGarity and Peppi Zellner. Maybe people think we took Zellner too high, but I think we'll be proven to be right."

Zellner is a guy that everyone here talks about. A 6-5, 251-pound defensive end from Fort Valley State, he was a virtual unknown in college.

"You watch the tapes from that school, and it's like watching a Charlie Chaplin film," said Lacewell.

But Zellner, just like Ekuban, brings speed to a defensive front badly in need of some. Ekuban had the fastest 40-yard dash time among defensive linemen at the scouting combine and Zellner was No. 2. Zellner also won the 20-yard dash and the broad jump.

"That doesn't mean he's a football player. We're not running track meets here," Lacewell said. "And when you watched the film, sometimes it bothered you. You wondered if you've got a football player or just a fast guy."

In camp, Zellner is behaving a lot like a football player. He's already fought twice with Erik Williams despite the fact he's about 70 pounds lighter.

If McGarity gets into the mix at receiver and if Dat Nguyen makes plays on special teams, then, yes, this has a chance to be the Cowboys' deepest and strongest draft since you-know-who took his magic wand to Miami.

Lacewell acknowledges past mistakes and understands the critics who long for the days when Jimmy was calling the shots.

"There's no life after Bear Bryant, there's no life after Darrell Royal," Lacewell said. "I understand that because I've been through that. People forget that there were some people here helping Jimmy."

Although Lacewell has been evaluating football talent for 40 years, he says that doesn't mean he has stopped learning. "I was guilty in the beginning of sometimes listening to just one guy instead of weighing all the information," he said. "The more opinions you can get on a player, the better off you are."

We won't know for two or three years if the 1999 draft class was a good one. We know that other than Larry Allen, the 1994 and 1995 drafts gave the Cowboys little. 1996 is pretty much the Randall Godfrey Show at this stage. And David LaFleur has to be healthy and productive for 16 games before anyone would grade the 1997 draft higher than a D.

But things do change in the NFL. People regarded as draft gurus fall into bad habits and make mistakes. The names Gil Brandt and Bobby Beathard come to mind.

With the last two drafts, Lacewell has a chance to revise the image that injuries, bad luck and some risky picks produced in the mid-'90s.

After 40 years of coaching and scouting, Lacewell might even have a chance to be regarded as one of those "football guys" everyone wants at the top of an organization.

"I've always wondered how many years you've got to be in the NFL until you become one of those so-called guys," Lacewell said.

For Lacewell to be a football guy, it might all come down to whether or not a 24-year-old former basketball player named Peppi Zellner can prove he's a football player.


(c) 1999, The Dallas Morning News.

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