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Nose tackle Quinton Bohanna's size gives Cowboys a missing ingredient

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FRISCO, Texas -- The replacement nose tackle looked a little different. First, he was smaller. Much smaller. Second, he did not have a helmet or a jersey.

Dan Quinn, the Dallas Cowboys' 50-year-old defensive coordinator, did what he could while Quinton Bohanna had his right shoulder quickly examined during last weekend's rookie minicamp, but to be fair Quinn had not actually played the spot since 1993 while at Salisbury State, a Division III school in Maryland.

"You know everybody try to go back to their old glory days," Bohanna joked, "but [Quinn] ain't no me out there. So it's a big difference when I'm in and when I'm out."

The Cowboys do not have another Bohanna, whom they selected in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL draft. At 6-foot-4, only three other defensive linemen are taller. At 327 pounds, none are bigger. In fact, he's the largest by 12 pounds.

It's not by accident. The Cowboys wanted to add bulk to their interior to help Quinn's transformation of the defense. For years under Rod Marinelli, they relied more on undersized defensive tackles to penetrate gaps.

They hoped Dontari Poe (6-3, 346) could be a difference-maker up front a year ago, but he was ineffective and released after seven games. The Cowboys finished with the second-worst run defense in the NFL, giving up 2,541 yards, the second-worst total in team history.

This offseason, they added length to their defense through free agency. Bohanna brings the size.

He's always brought the size.

"He was big," said his Cordova (Tenn.) High School coach, Anthony Jones, who is now the running backs coach at Memphis, where he coached the Cowboys' Tony Pollard. "He was 285, 290 in high school. Maybe 6-4 1/2, 6-5. He's by far the biggest we had."

He wasn't just big. He was also Cordova's third-string quarterback, too.

"If something would've happened to either guy, he would've played quarterback," Jones said. "He's a freakish athlete. He probably had the best hands on the team. He could've played on the offensive line and been really good at it. He could've done it all. He could throw it. Quinton might've been the best athlete. He wanted to run routes. We didn't play with a tight end much, plus, he was just too big. But he definitely could have. He was a heckuva basketball player, too."

But his home was at nose tackle.

"We're going to put him out on the edge as much as we ... I'm just kidding," Quinn laughed after the Cowboys selected Bohanna. "He's going to be right over the center. Sometimes here. Other times right there."

Quinn moved his hands about just 12 inches from one side to the other to demonstrate.

Bohanna was listed as even bigger at Kentucky than he is now. His bio had him at 357 pounds, but Wildcats defensive coordinator Brad White lauded Bohanna's work to drop weight the past two years.

"To be able to come in and play as a true freshman at nose tackle in the SEC says something," White said. "And to be able to contribute and make solid plays as a true freshman and get better and better until he's a senior, this guy didn't need a redshirt ... He shed some pounds to be more productive in the pass rush, but he's still big, strong and stout enough that he could command the respect of two blockers. And if one of the blockers eased off of him he was agile enough to go make the play."

At Kentucky, Bohanna started 33 of his 45 games. He never had more than 18 tackles in a season, recorded just two sacks, had nine tackles for loss, recovered a fumble, forced a fumble and had four pass breakups and three quarterback hurries.

They are hardly eye-popping numbers.

"Good nose tacklers understand what their role is and the really good nose tackles understand, 'Hey, I enjoy taking on double teams. My stats aren't the flashiest, but if the guys behind me are scot-free, then I know I did my job,'" White said. "When you find those guys that have that mentality, you latch on to them as a coach because that's what you want. It gets harder and harder to find guys that relish and enjoy the combat that happens there in the trenches. He's the guy that comes to the sideline, gets his water bottle and says, 'Coach, I did my job.'"

With the Cowboys, Bohanna won't be judged on his statistics. His play is better judged by how linebackers Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Micah Parsons produce.

"No, that ain't hard for me to do," Bohanna said on accepting the lack of stats that come with his role. "I don't look at it as a bad thing. That's a good thing. The team and the coaches know my value and what I can do. And I know in the same way I can go make plays myself. I got some athleticism. I can go penetrate and make plays in the backfield when needed. I take pride in the job. That's what I do like. This is my body type. This is my position. Ain't no bad to it to me."