Cowboys assistant Jeff Zgonina brings his own fire to Zimmer’s defense: ‘It’s personal for me’

Cowboys assistant Jeff Zgonina brings his own fire to Zimmer’s defense: ‘It’s personal for me’

Despite turning 54 years old later this week, Jeff Zgonina looks like he could still throw on pads and ring up a sack or two in the NFL. The 6-foot-3-inch 300-pounder cut an imposing figure when he stopped for a quick Q&A with reporters at The Star recently, but the Cowboys’ new hulking assistant defensive line coach does more than just look the part.

While defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s fiery temper has been a topic of much conversation since his hiring this offseason, it’s clear Zgonina will bring plenty of edge, too.

He freely admitted that his reputation over his previous eight seasons as a coach- he’s now on his fifth team- has been that of “a raging lunatic.”

And although he’s been on staff for just three quiet months in Dallas, Zgonina says he’s already had cause to bark at multiple players.

“Yes. Every day,” he said. “Every five minutes, if not more. And they’ve been warned.”

When asked what bothers him the most, Zgonina snapped back like the question itself was utterly ridiculous and the answer couldn’t be more obvious.


As Zgonina and the coaching staff look to instill a bit more of that combative fire into a Cowboys defense that perhaps relied too much on speed and finesse and was subsequently pushed around more than once last season, he knows that a big chunk of his first-year job performance will be based on the progression of 2023 first-round draft pick Mazi Smith.

The onetime seventh-round pick who enjoyed a 17-year NFL career and won a Super Bowl ring as a Ram isn’t overly concerned about Smith’s development under the new defensive regime in Dallas.

“Once we get him on the field, I think he’ll be a lot more comfortable in Coach Zim’s defense than previously,” Zgonina explained. “I think this aligns more with his build and what he’s known to do.”

That means getting Smith fully rehabbed from offseason shoulder surgery and getting him back up to a respectable playing weight for a nose tackle. The rest, Zgonina says, will come from letting him simply do his job.

“I think he’s going to be able to play blocks more than just getting upfield,” he continued. “I think it suits him better. Instead of just running upfield, he’s going to play blocks. He’s going to grind blocks and double teams and all that stuff, especially in the run game.”

Cowboys coaches will get their first opportunity to see that this summer in training camp. And while Smith’s early reps will come in shorts and shells against fresh faces like center Cooper Beebe and left tackle Tyler Guyton, Zgonina will expect full midseason effort from his entire line.

The objective is to dominate the offensive line, not to be mentors to the newbies across the ball.

“Oh, I don’t care about the rookies. I don’t care about anybody on the O-line. I’m a D-line coach. Coach Solari is a hell of a football coach. I’ve worked with him before; I’ve competed against him. And every time I’ve played against him,” Zgonina said, “I tell my guys, ‘It’s personal for me.’

“My guys, every day we’re going to go out there, I don’t care who lines up in front of us, we’re going to whip their ass. I know it’s our teammates, but we’re going to get them ready and they’re going to get us ready.”

That’s a mindset that should sit well with Cowboys fans, as well as the defense’s new boss.

“He just wants to win, like all of us,” Zgonina says of Zimmer.

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Zgonina says he’s seen the DC’s infamous temper here and there, but he knows it will be making more regular appearances as the offseason program unfolds.

And some of those inevitable tirades will likely be directed at Zgonina himself.

“I haven’t caught the wrath yet, but I know it’s coming,” he smiled. “But I’m fine with that. It makes you a better coach, a better player when you get the wrath.”

By that logic, between Zimmer and Zgonina both bringing their respective wrath, all signs are pointing to a ton of improvement in 2024 for the Dallas defensive line.


Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire