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Nick Folk Takes Command

Posted Aug 14, 2017

Camp Notes: The Buccaneers' "new" kicker had a strong practice in Jacksonville on Monday…Also, TE Alan Cross is working hard to keep his roster spot and several players returned from injury.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers added a new kicker to their 91-man training camp roster on Sunday, signing Zach Hocker, formerly of the Saints and Rams. More importantly, the Buccaneers will have a new kicker when the 2017 regular season begins.

That became a certainty on Saturday when Tampa Bay released Roberto Aguayo, their kicker in 2016. After a rough rookie season, Aguayo got some competition for the job when the team brought in veteran kicker Nick Folk during the 2017 offseason. After Folk made a 45-yard field goal and Aguayo missed an extra point and a 47-yard try in Friday's preseason opener, the team decided that competition was over.

Hocker will get a chance to compete, of course, but Koetter has made it clear that the team is fully behind Folk. The kicker responded with an excellent special teams session in Jacksonville on Monday morning. Folk made five of his six attempts, including the two longest ones, the final one from beyond 50 yards. He did clearly mis-hit one attempt, lining it low and off to the right, but his other five kicks were all no-doubters down the middle. His final kick from 50+ yards made it with plenty of room to spare.

The Buccaneers signed Hocker after trying out several kickers on Sunday, following the stated plan of adding a second leg for the rest of camp and the preseason after letting go of Aguayo. The team held a brief walk-through type of practice on Sunday before heading to Jacksonville, so Koetter hasn't yet seen Hocker kick in practice. It's clear he liked what he saw from Folk on Monday, though.

"I know [Special Teams Coordinator] Nate [Kaczor] saw [Hocker] yesterday but I have not seen him," said Koetter. "Our new kicker is Nick Folk. I saw him make five out of six today."

READ: Unfamiliar Foe Gives Practice an Extra Edge

Though that is a very small sample size, five made field goals in six attempts equates to an 83.3% success rate, a near match for last year's league-wide rate of 84.2%. The Buccaneers want to be better than most teams in that category, of course – and Folk made 87.1% of his tries in 2016 – but even improving to a league-average level could help win a few more games. The Buccaneers ranked last in the league in 2016 with a field goal success rate of 71.0%.

* Asked to identify a few performers who graded out well for their play in the second half of last Friday's game, Koetter mentioned three young players: rookie linebacker Kendell Beckwith, first-year offensive tackle Michael Liedtke and second-year tight end Alan Cross.

Beckwith, a third-round draft pick who has exceeded expectations in his comeback from a November ACL tear, seems like a near lock to make the 53-man roster. Liedtke, whose regular-season experience is limited to the practice squad, would represent an impressive underdog story if he can do the same. Cross would seem to be in the middle of those two scenarios.

The former undrafted free agent has already successfully traced one of those underdog arcs, as he made the 53-man roster out of the gate last year and, after a brief demotion to the practice squad, came back up and stayed up for the rest of the season. In essence, Cross beat out sixth-round draft pick Danny Vitale for the role of a reserve tight end who could help as a lead blocker and move around the formation. He played in 14 games and contributed six catches for 38 yards as well as a pair of special teams tackles. The highlight of his season was a three-yard touchdown catch in Week 13 that provided the decisive points in a 19-17 win in Kansas City.

Cross caught two passes for 30 yards last Friday against Cincinnati. Both actually came in the first half of the game, as he was among the wave of early reserves to come in after the starters exited. He has an added level of confidence in his second NFL training camp because he's got a better grasp of the offense, and not just what his position is supposed to be doing. In that regard, he's trying to learn all he can from tight end Luke Stocker, one of the Buccaneers' longest-tenured players.

"Luke knows everything about everything," said Cross, who goes by the superb nickname of 'Honcho.' "I kind of want to be like him and know the offensive terms, help the 'Z' out if he says, 'Hey, Honcho, what've I got?' 'You got this.' That's the biggest thing, confidence-wise, is knowing the playbook."

Cross's experience from 2016 and last year's very successful training camp performance are notches in his favor as he seeks to keep his spot on the 53-man roster. However, the offseason additions of first-round pick O.J. Howard and intriguing undrafted Canadian prospect Antony Auclair might seem to be new obstacles in that endeavor. The Buccaneers do have a crowded tight end depth chart this summer, but they also devote two of their 11 depth chart spots to that position. In essence, it's a mashup of the tight end and fullback spots on a traditional depth chart. That means the team could conceivably keep four or five tight ends. Cross clearly fills a niche as a lead blocker who is also a sure-handed receiver.

"I just tell myself every day, 'Do it just one day at a time,'" said Cross of this year's battle for a roster spot. "I could be done tomorrow so I want to enjoy every day like it's my last and try to have fun doing it.

"Just keep climbing. That's what I was just saying – take one day at a time. If it works out, it works out. If it doesn't, I'll be happy with myself because I know I've done everything the best I could to my ability."

* The beginning of the preseason schedule on Friday, while much anticipated by the players, brought with it that unfortunate side effect of a longer list of injured players. Quarterback Ryan Griffin, linebacker Devante Bond and running back Russell Hansbrough are all currently sidelined by ailments sustained against the Bengals.

However, a handful of players who were held out of the opener are now rounding back into shape, and the Bucs' overall roster health is still fairly good for mid-August. Of particular note was the return of starting center Ali Marpet on Monday in Jacksonville.

"Yeah, we got Ali back, got [OL] Evan Smith back out there today, [DE} George Johnson was back today," said Koetter. "Ali definitely firms up the middle for us. We had some identification errors in the run period but it wasn't the centers' fault. Getting Ali back – if it was a [regular-season] game, he would have been good to go in Cincinnati but it's good to get him back. It's good to get all those guys back."