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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Guy Called The Maz Please Step Forward


FRISCO, Texas 鈥 This is important. Real important going into the 2024 season, no two ways about it.

The 草莓视频下载入口 need "The Maz," the guy they used the 26th pick in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft to finally appear. The guy who arrived here back late April of last year at 6-3, 323 pounds. The guy who benched 225 pounds an NFL 2023 Combine high 34 times. The guy with the 81-inch wingspan. The guy who was a team captain at the University of Michigan.

My gosh rated No. 1 on one site's annual "Freak List" prior to the 2023 draft.

Yep, that guy, only the fifth defensive tackle this franchise has ever drafted in the first round, needing this Mazi Smith guy to walk into the shoes of the other four, Hall of Famer Bob Lilly in 1961, Hall of Famer Randy White in 1975, Danny Noonan in 1987 and the 1991 draft's first pick and eventual Pro Bowler Russell Maryland.

But the Cowboys never got The Maz they were projecting his rookie season. Only Mazi Smith. Only 270 out of a possible 1,070 defensive snaps (25.2 percent). Only three starts out of a potential 17, and those as but an injury replacement for the since departed Johnathan Hankins. Only 15 tackles, only two TFLs. Only five QB pressures. Only four snaps in the playoff loss to Green Bay.

A disappearing soul, including his weight, too, dropping below 300 pounds for some inexplicable reason, unless poorly influenced to lean up for up field attacks and sack-chasing possibilities. Not why he was this most necessary Cowboys first round pick.

The Cowboys sorely need him to change. Needs to become a space-eater. More of a speed bump against the run. Needs to qualify exactly why the Cowboys made him the third of just four defensive tackles selected in the first round of the 2023 draft. And if a refresher course is needed as to why the Cowboys drafted him there, here comes.

During the 12-5 previous season of 2022 ending with a second-round playoff loss to San Francisco the Cowboys finished 22nd against the run, giving up 129.3 yards a game. Why opponents ran for at least 100 yards in 11 of 17 regular season games. In the five they lost gave up at least 136: Tampa Bay 157, Philly 136, Green Bay 207, Jacksonville 192 and Washington 151. And kick in 113 more to the Niners in the playoff loss.

Plus, the Cowboys were well aware in their previous two playoff losses when giving up 169 yards rushing to the Niners that 2021 season and a whopping 273 to the Rams in that 2018 playoff loss. And in the 6-10 season of 2020, the Cowboys yielded a franchise single-season high 158.8 rushing yards a game.

Things needed to change. Drastically improve. Smith, they thought, was a step in the right direction.
Guess what? No so much so far.

See of any of this stuff sounds familiar. In 2023 the Cowboys finished 16th against the run, a slight bump up. Gave up 112.4 yards rushing a game, a slight decrease. Ten of 17 opponents rushed for at least 100 yards, four of those in losses to the Cardinals 222, Niners 170, Eagles 109 and Bills 266, not to mention Green Bay 143 and three touchdowns in that playoff loss. Why they actually even won a game despite giving up 125 to Detroit.

That must change if the Cowboys are even expecting to come close to matching at least another 12-5 season or have designs on earning the opportunity to improve their playoff fortunes, though knowing they must do so at the nose after losing DTs Hankins and Neville Gallimore,

They desperately need The Maz guy to show out since depth at nose tackle against the run is reduced to Mazi, seventh-round pick Justin Rogers, well-traveled ninth-year veteran Carl Davis now on his sixth team and having spent all but two games last year on the Cowboys practice squad, along with undrafted rookie free agent Denzel Daxon.

But at this point, who knows since Smith missed the entirety of offseason practices following shoulder surgery at the end of the season, though expected to be ready for the start of training camp after becoming strength and conditioning coordinator Harold Nash's pet rehab project.

At least, though, Mazi has a few factors swinging in his favor.

First, there will be a different front seven defensive scheme approach with a change on the defensive staff.

Start with former 17-year NFL veteran defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina now the defensive line coach, replacing the departed Aden Durde. Then Cowboys new but former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer replaces the departed Dan Quinn. These two guys might well be the football equivalent of those fire-starters they sell in store grilling sections you light to start up the charcoal.

This Zgonina (pronounced ska-KNEE-na), the self-described Polish guy from Chicago) has been known to start emotional fires.

What about it, Jeff, you and Mazi?

"I haven't had my hands on it yet because of him coming off his deal (surgery), so once we get him on the field, I think he will be a lot more comfortable in Coach Zimm's defense than previously, right," Zgonina says. "Every year, whatever, things change, right. I think this more aligns with his build, what he's known to do."

How so?

"I think he'll be able to play blocks more than just getting up field," Jeff says, choosing his words wisely. "Not disrespecting the previous coaches that were here or anything, just a different system, different style of D-Line play that Coach Zimm's brought in, you know. So, I think it suits him better, not just running up field. He's going to play blocks. He's going to grind blocks and double teams and all that stuff, especially in the run game."

That's a start. Now then there must be hard work buy in on Mazi's part. Now he must bring back that former University Michigan captaincy attitude; that 2022 Michigan Defensive Player of the Year performance quality, and that of an All-Big Ten first teamer.

Then there is this, too, to possibly accelerate his growth. Remember the fire starter approach?

Well, meet the no-nonsense Zgonina. When asked during his first interview about his coaching approach back in May, he said, "We got one thing, when we come to work, we're going to work. That's it."

These OTA and minicamp practices were but the flicker of the bonfire.

When asked about the working relationship between himself and new defensive line assistant Greg Ellis, the former Cowboys defensive end, Zgonina begins by saying, "I was fortunate the last two years (coaching in Washington) to work with Ryan Kerrigan (11-year NFL veteran), another great defensive end in the league. I love working with ex-players. I'm an ex-player."

So, you and Greg?

"It's going to be good, the ying and the yang," Zgonina said without hesitation. "He's more mild (mannered). I'm a little bit more of the loose cannon. So, it works. Just like Ryan. Ryan didn't say much. He was the calming soul, where I was the raging lunatic."

Oh, and one more thing about this guy in charge of the Cowboys defensive line, meaning part of his coaching responsibility is getting The Maz out of Mazi Smith, too, and this will warm the cockles of your heart for what he said when asked about if any of those "lunatic moments" already had erupted during OTAs.

"Yes, every day," his eyes emphasizing his sincerity. "Every five minutes. If not more. And they've been warned (about most) everything."

So, to me, Mazi has everything externally going his way. He's had a successful by all accounts shoulder repaired that somewhat hampered him the latter part of his rookie season. The change in defensive scheme, especially against the run, should be more suited to what he was asked to do at Michigan that helped propel him into first-round draft status.
And this Zgonina guy, come on, he is dead serious football man. No fooling around.

Yea man, Mazi, bring on The Maz.

The one this Cowboys defense desperately needs.

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