A summer ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers leading rusher in the preseason (excluding scrambling quarterback Josh Johnson) was diminutive return man Clifton Smith. Smith rushed 16 times for 76 yards during the warm-up games, averaging a fine 4.8 yards per tote.
That was certainly encouraging for the Buccaneers, who were (and still are) considering ways to get the electric return man involved a bit more on offense. In the end, though, those preseason numbers were as illusory as most August stats; Smith was once again a vital weapon in the return game but the bulk of the ground attack was carried by Cadillac Williams, with some help from Derrick Ward. Smith finished the 2009 season with a total of four carries.
This year, through the first half of the 2010 preseason, first-year man Kareem Huggins is the Buccaneers' leading rusher. He has taken 16 handoffs for a total of 99 yards, averaging a robust 6.2 yards a pop. Huggins has also caught two passes for 16 yards and generally looked like one of the more exciting players on the field.
Will Huggins' preseason numbers mean anything in the long run? In and of themselves, not really. Earnest Graham, the Bucs' leading rusher in 2007 and now the team's starting fullback, came to be known as "Mr. August" for his repeated strong performances in the preseason but that doesn't mean his summer stats have been saved for posterity. At some point, however, those performances did mean that Graham was secure in his spot on the Bucs' 53-man roster.
That, first and foremost, is what Huggins is fighting for in his second go-around with the Buccaneers, and it's the reason his preseason performance to this point could carry more meaning than anything that happened last summer (when, by the way, Huggins himself rushed 19 times for 74 yards). More to the point, Huggins' performance in the next two preseason games could speak volumes.
The same is true for Ward, who still occupies the second spot on the Bucs' running back depth chart behind Williams, and for good reason. Though Ward has just 31 yards on 17 carries so far this preseason, he has a body of NFL work that demands attention. Before arriving in Tampa as a prized free agent in 2009, Ward had emerged as a dynamic part of the New York Giants' league-leading rushing attack. In 2008, he cracked the 1,000-yard barrier despite just 182 carries, becoming only the seventh player in league history to reach 1,000 yards in a season while averaging 5.6 yards per carry or more.
What Ward and Huggins will be playing for in the next few weeks is the opportunity to build on their respective resumes. Ward wants to return to his Giants' form; Huggins wants to get a foothold in the NFL and prove he can be a productive runner, too.
"Obviously, Huggy has been out there and looked impressive the last couple of weeks, and Derrick knows what he needs to do," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He has to go out there and get it done, and he'd better do it fast. He's a pro. I still have a lot of belief in him. He's had a lot of success in this league. He's had a 1,000-yard season in this league before, which is something Huggins can't say he's done and something a lot of backs on this team can't say they've done. So you've got to let those guys go out there and compete, let them battle."
Morris indicated on Tuesday that the "Z" receiver position is the last one on the depth chart where the starter is not essentially set in stone. However, battles rage on throughout the roster for 53-man spots, 45-man gameday spots and quantity of regular-season reps. One of the most prominent is between Huggins and Ward, and it's being contested every day of the week, not just on Saturdays.
While he wanted to have his starting 22 essentially set by the beginning of the third preseason game, Morris knows that substitution patterns can be fluid and based on the situation. Thus, this choice could be delayed until close to the Cleveland regular-season opener, and even then it might not be permanent.
"When you talk about the guy that's going to go out there and really complement Cadillac, that decision can take it's time," said Morris. "You can let that go all the way to the fourth [preseason] game, really all the way to the week of practice [for the opener] before you decide who's going to have the helmet on and who's not. I don't think it's going to depend on this week."
Huggins has already made progress with his success so far this preseason. When training camp began, he seemed mostly to be in a battle with Smith for a possible job as a third-down back. The role he and Ward are contesting could potentially be more rewarding. And while we're mentioning Smith, it's worth noting that he could still be a factor in these decisions as well. A knee ailment has slowed him of late and he has yet to play this preseason, but he appeared to have his burst back on the practice field on Wednesday and he should make his debut Saturday against the Jaguars.
"I saw him scoot past me a couple times," said Morris of the rejuvenated Smith. "I saw him stick that foot in that ground. He gave us a little bit of that today and it was exciting to see."
Smith should get the chance to excite Buccaneers fans again on Saturday night. Huggins and Ward are hoping to do the same as the battle for playing time in Tampa Bay's backfield continues.
Stovall Not Expected to Play
The ankle injury that wide receiver Maurice Stovall sustained early in the preseason opener at Miami will likely keep him out of another game this weekend against the Jaguars. The fifth-year receiver, who had taken over the starting "Z" spot to start the preseason slate, also sat out last weekend's contest against the Chiefs.
The injury has been a tough break for Stovall, who has been unable to defend his number-one spot. With so many talented pass-catchers clamoring for attention in the Bucs' huddle, that problem could continue for Stovall. However, his injury is not a long-term issue, which means he will always have the opportunity to reclaim his job.
"It would be tough with the competition that's going on out there," said Morris of Stovall's ability to hold onto the starting job while sidelined. "To maintain that starting Z position while not being able to play these last couple games would be tough. He'd have to come back and fight, and he will do that. We know what Mo can do – we've seen him out there on the field a little bit last year and a little bit this year. But it would be tough for him to maintain and keep those guys off his back. There's a bunch of dogs out there and one bone, as one of my good buddies used to say, and those dogs out there are still running around and playing."
Morris indicated that Sammie Stroughter is at the front of the line in the battle to fill the void left by Stovall's absence.
"You've got to say that all those guys are out there fighting for it and all those guys are candidates," said the coach. "If you had to go numbers, you'd have to say Sammie is the lead dog. He had the most production in camp, he has the most production in the preseason and the most production on the grass for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After that you'd have to say Reggie because he's a dynamic route-runner and Michael Clayton because of what he has done. Arrelious [Benn] is the guy that's been fighting and really pushing those guys to be better. He's one of those young dynamic players that we drafted that we love and he'll push for it as well."
Johnson, Carpenter to Get Extensive Playing Time
Rookie quarterback Jevan Snead returned to the Buccaneers on Tuesday but it remains to be seen if he will see his first NFL game action this weekend.
Tampa Bay re-signed Snead, who had joined them as an undrafted free agent in May, after starting quarterback Josh Freeman fractured the tip of his right thumb against Kansas City. Freeman is expected back for the season opener against Cleveland but the Bucs wanted another arm for the depth chart in the meantime. Snead will try to take advantage of the opportunity to stick around long-term, but he may have to wait until the preseason finale in Houston to put his skills on display.
As the interim starter, Josh Johnson will stay on as long as the rest of the first-teamers are in the game. Rudy Carpenter, the second-year reserve who looked sharp last weekend against the Chiefs, is likely to get his own extended look in the second half.
"Josh is going to go out there and play with the starters," said Morris of Saturday's QB rotation. "I plan on playing those [starters] a half. If they receive the ball in the second half he'll come out with that crew and they'll be able to get a shot out the tunnel. If not, we'll get Rudy to open up the half and then he'll take it as far as we need to see him. Then hopefully we'll get a chance to get Jevan in there, but if not we'll get Jevan ready to go in that fourth preseason game."