SAN ANTONIO (AP) – Akwasi Owusu-Ansah was a small college cornerback recovering from shoulder surgery when he joined the Dallas Cowboys as a rookie last year. Once healthy, he played mostly special teams until he got hurt again.

With the lockout keeping him off the practice field all summer, plus a new coordinator and a new playbook to learn, Owusu-Ansah showed up at training camp pretty much starting over in his NFL career.

He also found himself starting at free safety.

His promotion is strictly by default, as the Cowboys are scrambling to find a veteran starter. For now, the job belongs to Owusu-Ansah and he’s trying to make the most of it.

“When they put the depth chart up, I was No. 1, and they expect me to hold higher standards,” he said. “I’ve just got to go out there, embrace the opportunity, work hard every day and compete.”

While the front office keeps searching, Owusu-Ansah is progressing slowly but surely.

The free safety is expected to call out coverages and signal for alignment changes to fellow defensive backs, but the first few days of practice, Owusu-Ansah was silent. He finally felt confident enough to bark out some changes on Sunday. Alas, he also got burned several times in two-minute drills. Back on the plus side, the 6-foot, 210-pounder filled the hole on a running play and leveled a hit that drew some oohs and aahs from the crowd.

“He’s raw, he’s got a ways to go,” secondary coach Dave Campo said. “He’s not ready to play right now, I can tell you that. But he’s out there. He’s kind of learning as he goes.”

Owusu-Ansah’s best ability is speed. He can cover a lot of ground quickly, which is why he’s already someone to watch on special teams. He averaged 21.7 yards on 25 kickoff returns last season.

A fourth-round pick from Indiana (Pa.) in 2010, his various injuries didn’t give him much chance to learn the defense. Less than a week into camp, he estimates he’s already played more at safety than he did all of last season.

Alan Ball was the starting free safety last year, and could be a last resort this season. How he did last year is best summed up by the fact the Cowboys want him to be their fourth cornerback this season. (He can’t practice at any position just yet because he was a free agent when the lockout began. He re-signed quickly, but is in a holding pattern like all veteran signees.)

Dallas expected to have a veteran signed by now. Jerry Jones said his pursuit of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha didn’t take him out of the running for any of the safeties that have signed elsewhere. Considering how much those guys got, it’s possible the Cowboys are waiting for the asking price to come down.

Meanwhile, that leaves likely backup Owusu-Ansah on the first team. It keeps him busy enough that he’s been able to avoid all the talk about who the Cowboys might get.

“By the time you get to your room, you’re looking at your playbook and going to sleep,” he said.

Four decades ago, the Cowboys experimented at free safety with another converted cornerback from a small school whose best attribute, at first, was returning kicks. Cliff Harris wound up on the NFL’s all-decade team for the 1970s and in the club’s Ring of Honor.

He’s glad to hear that Owusu-Ansah is getting this kind of valuable playing time during training camp. Whether he’s ready or not, everyone will find out right away whether he’s a keeper.

“This is the best way — throwing in a guy to see if he can perform,” Harris said. “Test him under fire to see if he makes it.”

Harris had the advantage of an extended training camp his rookie season. It included six games. So he had a big head start when the veterans arrived. While Owusu-Ansah lacks that, Harris said the fact Dallas has a new coordinator and a new playbook should put youngsters and veterans closer to even. Everyone is learning at the same time.

Harris’ best advice is for Owusu-Ansah to keep making a mark on special teams.

“You want to do everything you can and play as many positions as you can,” he said. “That’s how you become valuable.”

The preseason opener is a little over a week away.

“He’s going to get an opportunity to show what he can do,” Campo said. “Hopefully, he’ll improve enough. He’s got a chance. The thing he’s missing most is experience.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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