Tom Pennington / Staff

It appears the Dallas Cowboys are getting whole with time to spare ahead of a pivotal 2021 season. They've now welcomed back Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins to training camp after losing all three to season-ending injuries in 2020, and Prescott's shoulder strain suffered earlier in training camp has "improved dramatically" -- to the point he was spotted on Tuesday playing pitch-and-catch with Amari Cooper, who joins DeMarcus Lawrence in being activated from the PUP (physically unable to perform) list within the past week. One other who joined Cooper and Lawrence on the PUP list to begin camp will presumably soon be activated as well, with Greg Zuerlein rapidly improving in his recovery from a back injury.

"Actually, he's already started kicking," said special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel on Wednesday. "He hasn't done it in the group setting, but our trainers put him on a great kind of back to kicking protocol, if you will, where about two weeks ago, he started no step kicks. And then he graduated into one-step kicks and now he's going full step kicks. And we're hoping, hopefully this weekend, maybe in the Arizona pregame, he'll hit a few operation kicks with our snapper and our holder."

In his absence, it's been punter Hunter Niswander taking on duties as placekicker, and it didn't go well for him or the Cowboys when they took on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Hall of Fame Game (though,to his credit, there hasn't been much of any placekicking done in camp in Oxnard, California). But concerns on if it'll be Niswander still trying to find his way on Sept. 9 in the opener against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or if Zuerlein will be ready by then, are being put to bed by Fassel.

"I think Greg needs about three to four weeks of kicking to get ready for a regular season game," Fassel noted. "And I learned that from Sebastian Janikowski when I was in Oakland. 'Sea Bass' really didn't really hardly ever kick all spring or all summer because he knew the amount of volume was going to happen in the preseason, regular season, postseason. So, especially when they become veteran guys, that I'm actually very happy with how great he progressed off the little deal he had this summer. 

"I told [Zuerlein] I thought it was a blessing in disguise because it has prevented him from over kicking, because Greg has the tendency to be an over kicker. He just loves to kick so much. So, I think the timing is going to be great, and by Jacksonville or at least Week 1. 

"He's going to be 100% on all cylinders and very excited about it."

This will mostly allow Niswander to focus more on his battle as a punter against Bryan Anger -- a task he's much better suited for after impressing at the position in 2020. 

"I would say Hunter is absolutely competing," said Fassel of the punter competition. "We've given Bryan some first cracks at it with the first team because of just my evaluation of Bryan over the last nine years in the league as a punter, which he has been really good. And then there wasn't really anything that I didn't see from Hunter last year that you didn't really like. 

"But there were some things with just the mechanics, the operation, ball placement, that he just got to continue to work on. I think he's a great developmental punter. Not only a prospect, but a legitimate, qualified NFL punter. But I think it's great for Bryan to have Hunter's competition and for Hunter to have a veteran guy come in here and show him what nine years worth of punting in the league looks like. I think it's great for both of them.

"Also, to Hunter's credit, he's a punter specialist who can kickoff, who we're just asking him to kick field goals because we don't have anyone else that can do it. So, kicking field goals isn't Hunter's specialty. He has the ability to do it, not at a regular season kicking level. But he's helping us with that aspect until Greg gets back."

It'll be interesting to see how the battle between Niswander and Anger shakes out, but there is no such competition at kicker -- where Zuerlein is currently the hands-down starter and is on track to get back to work soon. And Fassel will be waiting, ready to share stories of sensitive medical procedures at a moment's notice.