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Sunday, May 17, 1998

Five wide receivers take aim at spot opposite Michael Irvin

By CLARENCE E. HILL JR. / Fort Worth Star-Telegram

IRVING, Texas (AP) -- Billy Davis had little more than a modest NFL pedigree of being an undrafted rookie who made the Cowboys as a special teams maven in 1995. He was known more for his work ethic than his ability to catch the football.

Until a few weeks ago.

Davis, who made $200,000 last season, signed a three-year, $3 million contact with the Cowboys recently. And then he heard the sweetest words a former free agent could hear.

"I consider him a starter" opposite Michael Irvin, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We paid him starter's money. He earned it last year. He just wasn't given the job."

Though listed as the starter opposite Irvin, Davis' three career regular-season catches put a bull's eye on his chest. Several of the team's other receivers -- namely Stepfret Williams, Ernie Mills, former TCU standout Jimmy Oliver and Macey Brooks -- have set aim for Davis' No. 2 receiver spot.

The competition for the position continues in today's coaching session practice at Valley Ranch, and the final determination of the starter may not be made until training camp in three months.

"I'm looking at the No. 2 position; there is no where else for me to look," said the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Brooks, who is considered Davis' toughest competitor because of his size and big-play potential.

Now financially secure and appreciative that he will finally be given a chance to compete full time at the NFL level, Davis said he will continue to compete with determination and hard work.

"It feels good for a guy that came from nowhere to somewhere," said Davis, who left training camp last season as the Cowboys second-best receiver and the league's preseason receptions leader but was relegated to special teams duties during the season.

"It's a reflection of my hard work," he added. "But I can't get comfortable. I'm not setting myself up for failure or disappointment. I'm just going to handle myself the best way I know how and that's through my performance."

Coach Chan Gailey seems less concerned about finding a No. 2 guy. The Cowboys' new offense -- which Gailey said will consist of shovel passes, double reverses, passes off double reverses and screens to receivers -- requires more than two quality contributors.

"It's not important to me to have a No. 2 guy, but somebody has to start and it's important to them," Gailey said. "We will win by committee at that position. But if you had to pick somebody right now, it would be Billy. But there is no clear-cut person."

The Cowboys will also feature four- and five-receiver sets on offense, the latter of which will require one of the receivers to line up in the backfield at running back. And Gailey said he will start installing plays this week in practice that specify three receivers and a tight end.

Cowboys receivers coach Dwain Painter said they will also alternate the receivers depending on the play and formation, meaning every receiver will have to approach the game as if a starter. The Cowboys coaches say they will need to get at least 80 receptions from Irvin and 30 receptions from two or three other receivers for the offense to be successful.

As a result, many football experts were surprised the Cowboys didn't select a receiver in the recent NFL draft, considering the importance of quality receivers to Gailey's offense and the fact that the current group of receivers, excluding Irvin and eight-year veteran Mills, is largely unproven.

Davis, Brooks and third-year veterans Williams and Oliver have never started a game in the NFL. Oliver, who was injured his first two seasons after being a second-round pick of the Chargers in 1995 and sat out last season, is searching for his first NFL reception. And so is Brooks, a fourth-round draft pick in 1997 who missed his entire rookie season with a fractured forearm.

However, Gailey said on draft day that he was confident the team had enough capable performers to do the job. And he has not swayed from that belief.

"They all have things that are particular to them," Gailey said. "The things that make the situation good is they are all quality receivers. Have they reached the next level yet? No. But I'm excited to watch them progress."

Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman is convinced they can do the job as well.

"They are bright guys," Aikman said. "They all want to work hard and they all want to compete."

Mills, a free-agent signee from Carolina who played for Gailey in Pittsburgh, is furthest along because he knows the offense and is helping the younger players grasp the system. However, his age (29) and his slow recovery from a knee injury in 1996 that limited him to 11 receptions last season project him to be more of a stop-gap receiver than a player of the future.

According to the Cowboys coaches, Davis' best assets are his strength, athleticism and work ethic. Cowboys cornerback Kevin Smith said Brooks, who played college baseball and is a tremendous basketball player, could be a factor in the Cowboys' red-zone offense because of his potential to make big plays around the goal line.

Williams, a disappointment as a rookie in 1996, emerged to catch 30 passes for 308 yards and one touchdown last season, while being used primarily as a third-down slot receiver. However, questions remain about whether he is strong enough to be an every-down player.

Oliver could be the wild card. He has seemingly recovered from the shoulder and knee injuries that plagued him the past three seasons. Painter said Oliver is worth the gamble because of his speed. Oliver runs the 40-yard dash in 4.27 seconds.

"We felt we couldn't go out and get a guy out of college with his experience and run a 4.27," Painter said.

And if Oliver doesn't provide the Cowboys with a consistent deep threat, they have another in cornerback Deion Sanders, who played receiver and cornerback for the Cowboys in 1996 before playing primarily defense last season.

Painter said Sanders, who will start working with the offense at today's coaching session, gives the Cowboys unlimited possibilities at receiver.

"To us, he will be a guy that we will involve in ways that will enhance what we do offensively," Painter said. "There are a lot of ways to get him the football. Coach Gailey and I have discussed his role. We are going to do more than reverses and fly patterns. He will have a big role in the offense."


Distributed by The Associated Press


All content copyright 1998, AP, KRT, The Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine

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