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Friday, July 25, 1997

LaFleur hard not to notice

By LANCE FLEMING

AUSTIN - David LaFleur is a big man, there's no doubt about that.

And if there were any doubt, Troy Aikman dismissed it very quickly.

"He's 6-7, 280 pounds if you haven't noticed," Aikman joked with reporters after Sunday afternoon's practice.

Why is Aikman so concerned with an offensive lineman? Because that offensive lineman happens to be the Cowboys' No. 1 draft pick out of LSU.

Oh, and also because he's a tight end.

That's right, a mountain of a man with big feet, thick neck and hands as soft as a feather bed is a tight end.

"Well he's big, there's no doubt about that," Aikman said. "He's a big target and that's good. It'll take some time, though, for him to get his footing in the NFL. He's going to have a good career in the NFL, but what his impact will be this year is hard to predict. I remember being a rookie trying to play right away and there's a lot of frustrating moments. We'll see how he handles it."

LaFleur is also anxious to see how he handles the pressure of being thrown into the NFL fire as a rookie.

He's being counted on to help replace the retired Jay Novacek, who was Aikman's favorite third-down target for six seasons.

Now, though, Aikman will have to turn his attention to third-year tight end Eric Bjornson or LaFleur.

"Jay Novacek was one of the greatest to ever play at that position," LaFleur said. "Anytime a player like that leaves the game there are big shoes to fill. Hopefully with the group of tight ends we have we can all step in and get the job done."

While Bjornson is more of a pass catcher and will probably see some time as a third wide receiver, LaFleur is a pure tight end. He's a blocker and pass- catcher, which is something the Cowboys haven't had since the days of Billy Joe Dupree in the late 1970s.

LaFleur also has enough speed to get open down the seam of the opponent's defense, creating matchup problems with smaller safeties.

But, he admits, doing that as an All-Southeastern Conference player and doing it as a Cowboy are two different things.

"The level of competition has certainly jumped up a great deal," LaFleur said. "A lot of times at LSU I was bigger than the defensive lineman I was blocking. But here the defensive linemen are as big, or bigger, than I am. Plus I'm used a lot more in passing routes here than I was at LSU and that takes some adjustment."

LaFleur said that while growing up in Westlake, La., he didn't ever expect to play in the NFL, much less be a first-round pick.

"My biggest dream was to play football at LSU, and once that happened I didn't know what to expect," LaFleur said. "Now I'm here, though, and I thank the Lord every day that I'm here."

And if there's not enough pressure in being a No. 1 pick, LaFleur has the added burden of being Aikman's hand-picked guy. The Cowboy quarterback worked out LaFleur this past spring, just as he did California All-America Tony Gonzalez, who was taken a few spots ahead of LaFleur by Kansas City.

Gonzalez was rated the No. 1 tight end in the draft, but Aikman liked LaFleur.

"I guess there's some pressure in that," LaFleur said. "But it all goes back to what you can do on the field. Troy might have had some influence on the Cowboys drafting me, but it all comes down to who's giong to play the best on the field."

And that could be LaFleur or Bjornson. Either way, LaFleur is a guy who just wants to get the job done.

"I think we fit well together," LaFleur said of Bjornson. "Eric's been showing me things and teaching me. He's a helluva receiver and whatever I can learn from him will only help me."


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