The rookie linemen had little relief on a hot day, as there were few subs on the 44-man roster
Offensive lineman Eric Faasen was blocking rusher Shane Jones. Cornerback Omar Laurence was covering receiver Terrance Metcalf. Quarterback Ryan Schneider was tracking the pre-snap movements of safeties Jack Hunt and Kane Ioane.
Believe it or not, this was a Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice…and you haven't been asleep for 20 years.
There were a few recognizable names on the field Friday, as the Bucs held the first of three rookie mini-camp practices in a sweltering heat that had just descended that afternoon. Michael Clayton, the team's first-round pick in the previous weekend's draft, ran his first routes as a Buccaneer. Ohio State safety Will Allen, a fourth-round pick, rotated in with Hunt and Ioane. Fabian Davis, a former unknown himself who opened eyes in Bucs training camp last summer, renewed his attempts to make the team.
Most of the 44 men who took the field in Buc gear on Friday, however, were completely new to the organization and working under contracts that might not last beyond three days. They are all fine football players in their own right, however, and they were in Tampa because they very well could fit into the team's future plans.
The Bucs will hold three practices from Friday through Sunday, one each day, plus a few walk-throughs and hours of meetings. That will comprise the first of two mini-camps the team is allowed to hold this offseason. One of those two can only be for rookies and first-year players, and the Bucs only have a handful of those, even after the draft. So, to flesh out the mini-camp roster and to look for additional talent, the Bucs signed 28 other rookies and first-year men to tryout contracts for the weekend.
"It's a credit to (General Manager) Bruce (Allen) and the front office for bringing in some guys that allowed us to not only practice but look at some newcomers that will be evaluated carefully," said Head Coach Jon Gruden.
"Everybody here has a chance. We wouldn't be out here on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, putting this much time into it if we didn't feel that way. Our goal is to bring these players up to speed so they don't slow us down. And they get an opportunity to highlight themselves and showcase what they can do when the veterans start rolling around."
So the Bucs fielded eight new draft choices, three rookie free agents signed on Friday, five first-year players already on the Bucs' roster (Mike Brown Anthony Davis, Fabian Davis, John Garrison and Doug Zeigler) and those 28 young men hoping to make a quick impression.
That still left the Bucs about 15 players short of what they would have for an in-season practice, and maybe 35 men short of a typical training camp outing. Some positions had barely a sub, such as an offensive line with only six men to rotate into five spots. Throw in the hottest afternoon in months and heads swimming from a morning of playbook cramming, and it was a challenging 90-minute affair for the newcomers.
Impressively, they were up to the challenge.
"I really respect what they did today, on both sides of the ball," said Gruden. "We put in 25 or 30 different passes and an array of formations, and they handled it quite well. We had very few wasted plays, and the quarterbacks, I thought, were very sharp. Marquel Blackwell from USF, in particular, did some real good things for us."
Blackwell actually had a fair amount of Tampa name recognition coming in, given that he had starred for four years at nearby South Florida. The Bulls played their home games in Raymond James Stadium, home of the Buccaneers, and Blackwell also spent some time with the Arena League's Tampa Bay Storm. He went to camp with the New York Jets this year and believes he can make it at the NFL level. Like the rest of the players in for tryouts, his short-term goal is to open some eyes in Tampa and hopefully earn a spot for training camp.
"We'll see how it goes," said Blackwell. "I'm just enjoying the experience, enjoying the time working with Coach Gruden and Coach (John) Shoop and the staff. I'm going to take what I can from it, take it for what it's worth and go with it.
"I know I can play at this level. But everybody needs that process, I guess, just to learn it, because this is the big time, now. You can't get out there and not know what you're doing. You've got to move around. (I had) a great experience (with the Jets). It helped me out a lot going into this thing."
Unlike Blackwell, most of the players in for weekend tryouts are rookies, fresh off final college, looking for their first shot in the pro ranks. Faasen, for instance, played at Toledo while Ioane came over from Montana State. Some were from big programs – Jones and offensive lineman Tim Fa'aita were teammates at Arizona State – while others represented small schools – punter Scott Verhalen played at East Texas Baptist and offensive lineman Alan Dunn represented Tusculum College in Alabama.
This likely won't be the last chance for each of these players to make an impression on a pro coaching staff, but it's impossible to say when the next one will come. Thus, the next three days are important to these men, and both sides are taking it very seriously. The Bucs know that valuable contributors can come from avenues other than the draft.
"We evaluate everything: their ability to concentrate in the meetings, how quickly they can grasp our system and take it between the lines and execute it and make some plays," said Gruden. "We've got a lot of guys on our team who weren't drafted, guys with obscure backgrounds who took advantage of these opportunities and not only became players for us but became starters and, in Shelton Quarles' case, a Pro Bowl player. So this is a tool that we don't take lightly. We're going to evaluate these men hard for the next couple days."
So far, so good.
"I was really impressed with the enthusiasm, the want-to and the effort by these guys," Gruden continued. "It was very, very good throughout the day. We're off to a pretty good start. We like the attendance in our offseason program and we feel like we've added some newcomers in the draft and maybe there are a couple free agents here that can help us."