Campo not concerned with size of linebackers

Friday, August 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Built for speed

As a goodwill gesture related to Saturday night's exhibition against Atlanta at Tokyo, the Cowboys brought two Japanese players into training camp.

One of the players is Masafumi Kawaguchi, a 5-11, 180-pound linebacker. He looks like any other Cowboys linebacker, which says much about the state of the position on this defense.

The Cowboys either know something about the art of playing linebacker in the NFL that no other team does or they find themselves in a size bind at the position.

The Cowboys plan on using the mosquito squadron at the three linebacker spots. Of their top five linebackers, four are less than 6-feet tall, and four weigh 235 pounds or less.

Outside linebacker Darrin Hambrick is the tallest of the linebackers at 6-2, and he is in danger of losing his job to Joe Bowden of North Mesquite. Middle linebacker Barron Wortham, nursing a knee injury that will keep him out for at least two more weeks, is the heavyweight at 245 pounds.

The Cowboys for a decade have emphasized speed on defense. They take that thinking to an extreme this season with the linebackers.

"Around here we've got a new word: compact," said outside linebacker Dexter Coakley, the league's smallest starting linebacker at a listed 5-10 and 228 pounds. "Size isn't important. What's important is making the play. We can do that."

Size does matter to most NFL teams when it comes to linebackers.

Of the 93 projected starting linebackers with the league's other 30 teams, only four are less than 6-feet tall: Miami's Zach Thomas, St. Louis' London Fletcher, Minnesota's Ed McDaniel and Atlanta's Jessie Tuggle. There are only 17 projected starters who are listed at 235 pounds or less.

"The size doesn't bother me," said coach Dave Campo, who can look his linebackers in the eye. "I believe in speed in that position, and we've got plenty of speed."

Speed will determine whether Dat Nguyen can survive in the middle.

The Cowboys claim Nguyen is 5-11 and 231 pounds. Only one starting middle linebacker is smaller: McDaniel, who is two pounds lighter. Randall Godfrey, last season's starter, is 6-2 and 245 pounds. Godfrey moved to Tennessee as a free agent.

Nguyen cannot linger in traffic and slug it out with bigger offensive linemen as Pittsburgh's Levon Kirkland, a 270-pounder, does. Nguyen said he is stronger after a full off-season in the weight room and therefore better equipped to take on bigger players, but he must outrun blockers to make plays.

Nguyen, getting the first chance to replace Godfrey, is the great unknown on this defense. He primarily played on special teams as a rookie last season. If he cannot avoid the mob scene near the line, the Cowboys would have to turn to Wortham or veteran Chris Bordano.

Nguyen played only two series in Sunday's exhibition opener against Pittsburgh. His most memorable play was not a tackle but when he was crunched by a block by Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh's 250-pound running back.

"My size has always been a negative," Nguyen said. "But there were big guys in college, too. I know what I have to do. I have to use my speed."

How well the linebackers run hinges on how physical the defensive front can play. The Cowboys need their linemen, especially the tackles, to occupy blockers rather than charge ahead. If the blockers get loose, the undersized linebackers are in trouble.

"They let us run and roam and make plays," Hambrick said. "You can't run away from contact, but we like to make a play without having to put a lick on a lineman first."

Tampa Bay proved last season that speed linebackers can be productive.

The Bucs' starters – Shelton Quarles, Jamie Duncan and Derrick Brooks – are no more than 6-1 and weigh between 230 and 242 pounds. The Bucs had the third-ranked defense in the NFL last season. They also had an active front that kept blockers away from the undersized linebackers.

"We want guys who can get into position to make plays," linebacker coach George Edwards said. "Size is not a factor in getting the job done."

Bigger is not always better, Edwards said. The Cowboys hope smaller is not overmatched.