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Thursday, December 4, 1997

High-rising cornerback Kevin Mathis at the starting gate

By Bart Hubbuch

The Dallas Morning News

(KRT)

DALLAS - Gainesville native Kevin Mathis' storybook rise did not end when he came out of nowhere in the pre-season to earn a roster spot with the Cowboys.

No, the highlight will come Monday, when Mathis starts at right cornerback and returns punts against Carolina on "Monday Night Football" in place of injured Deion Sanders.

Coach Barry Switzer confirmed Mathis' starting assignment, saying Sanders will not play next week because of a fractured rib.

'He (Mathis) is inexperienced, and he'll have some problems because of that," Switzer said. "Those are some tough shoes to try to fill."

And not a very big player to fill them. Mathis is the shortest defensive player at 5-9, 172 pounds.

"I'm five feet, nine and one-half," insisted Mathis, who said Sanders teased him Tuesday night about having Dallas' hopes entirely on his shoulders.

Mathis, a former Texas A&M-Commerce standout, made the roster in training camp mostly with his blazing speed. He has shown flashes as a rookie, making 12 tackles primarily on special teams while unseating Wendell Davis as the backup cornerback.

Mathis replaced Sanders in the first quarter last Thursday against Tennesee and was picked on frequently. He expects the same Monday, although Carolina does not have a wide receiver taller than 6-2.

"Not being drafted because of my size really motivates me," Mathis said. "I'm trying to show that you don't have to be 6-1 or 6-2 to play cornerback in this league."

HONOLULU-BOUND?

This year's Pro Bowl lineup will be announced next Thursday, and Cowboys' first-year kicker Richie Cunningham could find himself on that list.

Cunningham, after all, has been one of the NFL's true surprises this season, converting 31 of 33 field goals (.939) and all 19 extra points in his first pro season. He leads the NFC with 112 points.

But Detroit's Jason Hanson, whose only missed field goal was from 54 yards, might have the upper hand with a 23 of 24 conversion rate (.958).

Cunningham also has a shot at the NFL's all-time record for field goals. He is chasing the mark of 37 set last season by Carolina's John Kasay, opposite Cunningham next Monday at Texas Stadium.

"I'm looking forward to running into Kasay and meeting him," Cunningham said. "I'd like to find out how he approached it when he was setting the record."

INJURY UPDATE:

Troy Aikman has not practiced this week because of a swollen right thumb and index finger, but the Cowboys are confident he will start against Carolina. Aikman has not missed a start because of injury since 1994.

"He's going to play," wide receiver Michael Irvin said. "I'm not worried about that. You know he's going to play."

Emmitt Smith has not practiced this week because of a bruised left shoulder, but hopes to work out Thursday. Smith is considered probable for Monday.

STARMAKERS:

Looking to win the NFC or AFC Player of the Week award? Just play the Cowboys.

Five players have won the award this season after games against Dallas. Tennessee safety Marcus Robertson is the latest, earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week for an interception and a fumble return in the Oilers' 27-14 victory over the Cowboys last Thursday.

Robertson joins Arizona cornerback Aeneas Williams, San Francisco defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, Philadelphia defensive tackle Rhett Hall and Washington punter Matt Turk on the list of players this season who claimed the weekly conference award for their efforts against the Cowboys.

ABSENT-MINDED IRVIN:

Assistant equipment manager Bucky Buchanan stopped by Michael Irvin's locker Tuesday afternoon and reminded him to bring his game pants to Valley Ranch.

Irvin was so upset after the Cowboys' loss to Tennessee on Thursday that he left Texas Stadium still wearing his game pants and cleats.

"I've got everybody else's uniform," Buchanan said with a laugh. "I just want to make sure I don't have to get another one."

BRIEFLY ...

Rookie cornerback Kenny Wheaton returned to the team Wednesday. Wheaton had been excused since his younger brother, Derrick, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Phoenix two weeks ago ... Carolina will be without two of its top receivers Monday: Raghib Ismail (shoulder) and Mark Carrier (hand).

(c) 1997, The Dallas Morning News.

Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com/

Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


All content copyright 1997, AP, KRT, The Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine

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