DE Simeon Rice barrels through the first defensive line drill of the morning
Already, 2001 has been an exciting season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but one that has been played mostly on paper and on the phone, in the 'War Room' and in Rich McKay's office.
Friday, the players finally hit the field and an actual football was passed, kicked, carried and punted. The team's annual post-draft mini-camp kicked off a little after 10:00 a.m. and, in a way, it was the beginning of what many believe will be a landmark season.
"It's always fun, this first day of camp," said Head Coach Tony Dungy after the team finished a 105-minute workout under cloudless and temperate skies. "You're anxious to get the new guys here and see where you are.
"I was pleased with the effort. I think the veterans that have been here for a month of voluntary workouts did a good job of setting the tempo for the young guys. This weekend is really just a chance to give our new guys a sense of what's going on, give them information to take back with them to school, so that when they come back in May or June, and for the start of training camp, we'll all be on the same page."
The Bucs' two practice fields, and the locker room after the workout, were crowded, as 83 players suited up for the weekend. There are 88 players on the roster, including unsigned draft choices and restricted free agents, but eight of those players are overseas in the NFL Europe League. In addition, CB Brian Kelly wasn't on hand, having had very minor arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Thursday. Kelly should be back in action in two weeks, at the latest, possibly in just one week.
That brought the attendance down to 79, but the team also had four players in gear that are on an extended, three-day tryout. Thus, a total of 83. There were no other absences, explained or unexplained.
All nine of last weekend's draft choices displayed their skills for Buc coaches for the first time, though each will have to return to campus after the weekend is over. A rookie cannot work at the team's complex, other than during the official mini-camp, until his college's school year is over, even if he is done with his own set of classes.
But those nine weren't the only new faces. In fact, a full 40 of the 83 players in uniform were acquired in 2001, nearly half of the attendance. Most notably, that includes quarterbacks Brad Johnson and Ryan Leaf, defensive tackle Simeon Rice and first-round offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker.
Those last two began what will surely be a season-long practice battle at 11:40 a.m., when Rice lined up for his first one-on-one with Walker. Rice is scheduled to start at right defensive end; Walker took the first snap at left tackle. There already exists a mutual respect between the two.
"He's already a great player," said Rice of Walker. "He'll get even better as he grasps things out here. Throwing me in as an addition is only going to help."
Countered Walker, drolly: "He's going to welcome me to the NFL, I believe."
Rice, who racked up 51.5 sacks in four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, signed a five-year deal with the Buccaneers on March 23. Though he turned in a remarkable 16.5 sacks in 1999, he's looking to make this his best season yet. He was impressed by the tempo of his first Buccaneer practice.
"Right now, we're playing for our desire and intensity," said Rice. "Hopefully, we'll stay at this thing with tenacity, and everyone in this area will get to participate in a good thing."
Other sights and sounds from the Buccaneers' first full practice of 2001:
- When the defensive linemen lined up for their first drill of the day, the winding sprint through four dummies to the 'sack' of the quarterback dummy at the end, four-time Pro Bowl DT Warren Sapp went first. Marcus Jones went second.
This was no accident. Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinelli wanted two things out of his group on this morning: effort and tempo. As veterans, Sapp and Jones are familiar with how hard Marinelli wants this drill run, and the others soon learned as Marinelli bellowed 'Tempo, tempo, tempo!' repeatedly. When an effort by a younger player was not to his liking, Marinelli would have them watch Sapp in action.
- Sapp was in mid-shape form. Having trimmed approximately 20-25 pounds from his frame since last season ended, Sapp was seemingly everywhere, spreading humor and sharp-edged encouragement during other group's drills.
- Sapp was particularly entertained by the special teams drill that pits one 'forcer' against two men trying to stop him. These are the players that line up on the far edges of the punt coverage unit and try to beat the blockers early in order to get to the return man and pinch him to the middle. While Sapp clearly had a good time observing the players involved – mostly receivers and defensive backs – this was serious business. Many young players will need to impress on special teams first in order to win a roster spot and compete for more playing time.
Among the rookies taking turns in this drill were receivers Robert Kilow, Margin Hooks, Jacquay Nunnally and Frank Rice and defensive backs Dwight Smith and Alex Ardley. Smith is a wide-bodied cornerback who the Bucs took in the third round and predicted would excel on special teams. Indeed, he seemed to handle the drill particularly well, first walling off the forcer when he was on defense, then pulling a power move to run through his man when he was the forcer. Other players who impressed during this drill included Rice, RB Aaron Stecker and WR Frank Murphy.
- In addition to the eyes in the sky on the video department's lifts, where cameras provide end zone and sideline views, the Bucs had a third camera on the field in the hands of roving Video Director Dave Levy. During the quarterback-receiver passing drills, Levy set up a ladder about 13 yards behind the pocket and filmed from the top rung. The object was to provide Quarterbacks Coach Jim Caldwell with a post-practice video that showed the drill from the quarterback's point of view.
- During the very brief seven-on-seven session that ended the day's work, Ardley picked off a pass that deflected off Kilow's hands. Every moment has an opportunity for a lesson in a camp such as this, and the lesson at this juncture was that, upon a turnover, the entire defense needs to immediately sprint upfield and to one sideline to provide a convoy for the return man. Sapp, still on top of all the action on the sideline, immediately started yelling for this to happen as soon as the ball fell into Ardley's hands. The young players on the field responded.
- Moments later, Leaf showed off his impressive arm strength on the last pass of the day. WR Karl Williams ran a deep out, about 30 yards downfield, and Leaf dropped the ball right into his hands as Williams came out of the break. The deep out is one of the most difficult passes to throw in the NFL.
- The combination of beautiful weather, a first practice and the presence of several new marquee players made One Buccaneer Place a popular spot for photographers on Friday morning. At least a dozen shooters lined the near sideline throughout the workout.
- With Walker on board, it appears that George Hegamin, who platooned at left tackle with Pete Pierson in 2000, will switch to the right side. On Friday, Hegamin worked out at right tackle, the position that Offensive Line Coach Chris Foerster believes is his best.
The team practices again on Friday from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., then returns on Saturday for two more workouts and on Sunday for a final session.