A new level of learning


Last Sunday’s game at Washington was a familiar one for Dallas Cowboys rookie offensive lineman Matt Lehr.

No snaps but a lot of studying from the bench.

That’s okay with Lehr, though. The 1997 Woodbridge High School graduate and former Virginia Tech Hokie gets the best of both worlds when he lines up next to All-Pro guard Larry Allen and veteran center Mark Stepnoski in practice.

Lacking the brute strength of the 6-3, 326-pound Allen, who bench presses 700 pounds, and the savvy moves and game knowledge of the 34-year-old Stepnoski, Lehr is absorbing as much he can.

“I have the technician in Stepnoski and the physical dominance of a Larry Allen. I can take some from both,” said the 6-2, 292-pound Lehr.

During the preseason, Lehr, a fifth-round draft pick (137th overall), spent the majority of his time as the second-team center. So far this season, Lehr has seen limited minutes in four contests, including a stint at both guard positions when Allen and Kelvin Garmon were injured during the Arizona Cardinals game on Oct. 28.

Lehr’s ability to handle both jobs has impressed the six-time Pro Bowler Allen.

“He’s smart and you got to be smart to play in this league, especially as an offensive lineman,” Allen said. “Certain calls you got to read the defense, there’s a lot of things you got to know and he’s [Lehr] done a good job. He hardly ever makes a mental mistake.”

Stepnoski, who made the Pro Bowl five consecutive seasons in the early 1990s with the Cowboys, commended Lehr’s juggling act.

“He has done a good job of knowing two positions, that’s not the easiest thing in the world,” Stepnoski said. “I actually had to do that my rookie year so I know what he’s going through. He’s done a good job of staying on top of it.”

Lehr played guard at Virginia Tech but says either position is fine with him. He just wants to help the Cowboys any way he can.

“My main thing is getting confidence right now,” Lehr said. “Once I get that, I think I’ll be fine.”

Dallas head coach Dave Campo hopes that Lehr can eventually take over at center for Stepnoski when the veteran retires.

“Matt’s a guy who we feel is the heir apparent at center. He’s very quick and he’s physical. … We like him, and we like his attitude. He’s a grinder who likes to be out there.”

Both Campo and tight ends/special teams coach Joe Avezanno were attracted to Lehr given his success at a high-profile football school like Virginia Tech. In Lehr’s last two seasons at Virginia Tech, the Hokies went 22-2 and played in the national title game against Florida State his junior year.

“We really like him. He comes from an outstanding and disciplined program at Virginia Tech,” Campo said.

“He was a good athlete that played the game well at a good school against good competition,” Avezanno added. “Those are all pretty good criteria.”

Like so many other NFL rookies, Lehr’s toughest adjustment has been getting used to the pace of the game.

“The speed of the game is so much greater,” Lehr said. “In college, you’re always going to have that person that you know that you can dominate. Here you got to come out every day or you’re going to get your butt beat.”

Chances are, playing with Allen and Stepnoski will more than keep Lehr up to speed. And he’s in no rush to stop learning.

“With Mark [Stepnoski], it’s like an honor [to play with him] because he’s like my idol,” Lehr said. “He’s like my mentor on the football field. He’s always been undersized and I’m not the biggest person either. Just seeing how he does, how he reacts, how he handles certain situations is a great opportunity for me.”

“One thing he’s improving in is learning the game,” Stepnoski added. “Reading defenses, being able to anticipate what the defense is going to do. I’m sure as the year goes on, he’ll see some things in a game that he hadn’t seen in college and as time goes on, he’ll get better at recognizing things like that.”

Staff writer Brian Hunsicker contributed to this story.

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