The pads went on Sunday morning at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp, and the hitting started on the third day of practice. For rookie Mark Barron, the hard-hitting safety drafted seventh overall by the Buccaneers this past April, only one thing was missing.
He didn't get to pop anyone.
The Buccaneers ran several full-speed, full-contact periods during their first padded practice of the entire year, mostly in the sort of "pro thud" mode where hitting is allowed but wrapping up and pulling to the ground is discouraged. The offensive and defensive linemen were banging on every play, and most of the linebackers and running backs had plenty of opportunities to mix it up. Poor Barron, though – no real chances for him to hit someone ever developed.
The former Alabama star shrugged off the missed opportunity after practice concluded on Sunday, knowing there will be plenty more. Now that the pads have finally gone on, the Bucs will be practicing in them almost every day for the next two weeks. Just getting used to them again was the first step for everybody on the practice field Sunday.
"Actually, I didn't get to hit anybody," Barron confirmed. "I didn't get a chance to do that, but I'm not disappointed. I know it will happen sooner or later. It was good to get that work in, get the feel for the pads."
Indeed, even though the first two camp practices – not to mention the entirety of the offseason – were run at the high-tempo pace demanded by Head Coach Greg Schiano, things seemed even a bit more intense on Day Three. The two non-padded days the team used to get into the swing of camp and get used to the playbook again after a long break set the Bucs up for a productive first day in pads.
"Guys were out there playing good football and it was good, positive energy today," said guard Davin Joseph. "It was more physical today. Guys have a better understanding of the playbook so it's a lot faster today, a lot quicker. I was seeing guys getting in the right gap, guys making the right blocks. We're competing to get better and right now we're really looking good."
At the end of one of the first full-team, full-speed periods of Sunday's practice, defensive end Adrian Clayborn made a great read on an outlet pass to Erik Lorig and hit the fullback just as the ball was arriving. Lorig hit the ground, as any player in that position would have, and the ball fell incomplete. Almost immediately, Schiano called the entire team around him in a huddle, and onlookers wondered if Clayborn had crossed the line of practice etiquette.
In fact, the hit on Lorig came on the final scripted play of the period, and Schiano simply wanted to run down the positives and negatives of what he had seen. The hit was fine, as was almost all of the full-contact action on Sunday; it was a handful of penalties, a missed assignment or two and one fumble by a running back that was on the coach's mind.
"I thought it was a great play," said Schiano of Clayborn's hit. "I stopped it because it was the end of the period and I wanted to make some comments on the period as a total. I didn't think the period was very sharp and I wanted to have a little talk."
Wide receiver Vincent Jackson wasn't surprised to see the Buccaneers respond with some added energy to the first opportunity to put on pads in almost eight months. He said there wasn't a real adjustment in attitude necessary to the transition to more contact, that players easily embrace the arrival of added practices because it feels a bit more like the real thing.
"You just play football," said Jackson. "We've been doing it for a long time, since we were all in Pop Warner. There's always a little more excitement, more buzz, guys are flying around and popping. It was a good day, productive. We're trying to put one together each and every day, and just focusing on that mission. Schiano's definitely a tough-nosed guy and he wants to be a physical team, the most physically-prepared [team] each and every Sunday. And I think we will be that."
Even Barron, who never got to throw his shoulder pads into any significant action on Sunday, knew his team had taken another important step towards being ready for the September 9 season opener versus Carolina.
"We came out here and got in some good work," said the rookie. "It's still not the real thing until the first game, but it's always good to get those pads on; every football player knows that. So it was good to come out here and get that work in pads in."
Young Linebackers Shine as Pads Go On
Wide receiver Sammie Stroughter had a moment on Sunday similar to the one visited on Lorig by Clayborn after Stroughter made a terrific catch in traffic during another drill. Stroughter held on to the ball but was rendered horizontal by a clean but ferocious hit from second-year linebacker Mason Foster.
Stroughter wasn't the only one who had his eyes opened by Foster during Sunday's practice. On another play during a run period, Foster made a perfect move into the gap to stop a running back at the line of scrimmage, and a few plays later he forced a fumble by another runner. Foster's slightly younger teammate, Lavonte David, also turned in several splash plays on the day, including a stop at the line one play after Foster did the same.
Those were good sights for Buccaneer coaches, who may be relying on those two youthful 'backers – they have a combined one year of NFL experience – to patrol the middle of the field this fall. For most of the weekend, Foster (in the middle), David (weak side) and veteran Quincy Black (strong side) have been forming the first team crew of linebackers.
"I thought I had a decent day," said Foster, who started at middle linebacker for all of 2011, a difficult assignment for a rookie. "I'm just going to keep trying to get better, keep studying. It's early in camp, so you've just got to progress throughout camp and keep it going."
On that latter point, Schiano said the Bucs' linebackers have been right on point, leading to a fairly strong performance on Day Three.
"Without watching the tape, just watching out there, I thought they did things a little better," said Schiano. "I think each day they've gotten better; I don't think we were very good on day one but I think we've gotten better, performed better at linebacker each practice. And we have to because that's a critical part of your defense. It starts with your defensive line and if you can get those guys cooking you need to get those linebackers pressing downhill. We have to be a downhill attacking football team and that's something were working very hard on."
Some outside observers expected the Buccaneers to move Foster to the outside this year and try a different starter in the middle, but so far the current staff has stuck with the former Washington standout as their quarterback on defense. Foster certainly looked like he knew what he was doing on Sunday, and he credits much of that to an opportunity, unlike last year, to work with the coaching staff throughout the spring and summer.
"It feels great to have the offseason, to see how important it really is to be able to talk to the coaches, to study throughout the offseason, to get to run the plays in walk-throughs," he said. "It's definitely helping out. I feel comfortable making the calls and it lets you play a little faster. Being able to attack, playing downhill…it's a great scheme all around, special teams, everything. Everything's brand new and I feel like everyone's buying in, so I'm excited about this preseason."
Schiano has said that the Buccaneers will explore several potential linebacker lineups, but David certainly seems like a strong candidate to win the weak side job that has been patrolled by Geno Hayes the last few years. David has already gained the confidence of the man playing next to him.
"Lavonte's an incredible athlete and he's coming along fast," said Foster. "He's a really smart kid and it's great having him next to me. He's flying around, trying to get better as well."