The mention of renewing an old one-on-one rivalry makes DeMarcus Ware smile.
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When trying to catch the attention of NFL scouts as a college pass-rusher at Troy almost a decade ago, Ware was matched several times against another aspiring pro from a lower-level Division I program (Utah State) who was hoping to impress at left tackle. Once again, Ware will square off against Donald Penn on Sunday when the Dallas Cowboys host Tampa Bay (1 p.m. ET, FOX).
It dawned on Ware how far both had come when he and Penn were selected to the NFC’s 2010 Pro Bowl squad.
"It was just weird to see a guy who started at the same place as me," Ware told FOXSports.com after Thursday’s Cowboys practice. "We started at small schools and made it to the league."
Penn said he and Ware became friends at the Pro Bowl because of that shared experience and respect built through college and NFL matchups.
"I used to love to battle against him," Penn told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview. "It’s funny how we still continue to battle. He’s such a great guy, too.”
Penn, though, realizes such niceties will be set aside during Sunday’s matchup.
"Some guys are just speed or just power. He’s a combination of both," Penn said. "It’s a tough week for me getting ready, but I enjoy playing against him.”
Ware’s 93.5 sacks since 2006 are the most by any NFL player. Ware had eight tackles in last Sunday’s 27-7 loss to Seattle, which was his highest single-game total since Week 8 of last season. But the outside linebacker was held without a sack by Seahawks left tackle Frank Omiyale, who was replacing injured starter Russell Okung (leg).
Standing at 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds, Ware knows that the 6-foot-5, 340-pound Penn enjoys a significant size advantage.
"He’s a big guy, but he can hunker down and anchor really well," Ware said. "He’s very quick for his size and has very good strength."
Compared to Week Three of last season, Penn is Tampa Bay’s lone remaining offensive line starter. The latest change has come at right tackle where Demar Dotson is set to make his second start in place of the demoted Jeremy Trueblood.
Although the unit is still trying to build continuity with so much juggling, Penn does now enjoy the luxury of starting next to one of the NFL’s top left guards in Carl Nicks, who was signed away from New Orleans as a free agent during the offseason.
"He helps us out so much because he’s so powerful and physical," Penn said. "We’re still working to get things right, but it’s an honor to play with him. I’m trying to get some of the prestige that he gets."
Penn can earn some Sunday by stonewalling a long-time adversary.