A slimmed-down Warren Sapp has stormed through mini-camp drills and made his presence felt on the Bucs' practice field
Warren Sapp wants to remain the center of attention on the football field, and to do so he's altering his center of gravity.
Sapp was noticeably – and purposely – trimmer when mini-camp opened on Friday. And so, for two days, well-meaning reporters following this lead have tried to get Head Coach Tony Dungy to say one thing: that Sapp needed to lose weight to perform at peak efficiency.
Perhaps mindful of Sapp's 16.5 sacks in 2000, just one half off the league lead, or of Sapp's NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award the year before, Dungy wouldn't take the bait. He sees Sapp as a one-of-a-kind athlete upon which he is reluctant to put qualifiers.
"I just think that Warren's a unique player in the league," said Dungy on Saturday, after the third of five scheduled mini-camp practices. "He's been the defensive player of the year, he's been a Pro Bowl player. When he's on top of his game, he can be the best defensive player in the league and that's what we need to be successful, to get where we want to go. I think he understands that.
"He's got to play well for us to be good on defense. That's how the system is set up, that position and Derrick Brooks' position have to make a lot of plays, and we count on him to do it. For the most part, he's done a great job for us."
Sapp, on the other hand, is more than willing to tie his weight to his best effort. Or, at the least, he's not taking any chances.
"I don't know," said Sapp of his new initiative. "I just want to prepare myself to be the best player I can possibly be for this team, and I think I can do that at about 290, 285, and that's where I'm on my way to."
For Dungy, part of the issue likely boils down to privacy. He and Sapp sit down for a discussion of objectives before each season, but this is the type of conversation that the coach likes to keep in the family.
"He and I talk, usually at the beginning of every year, and we set some goals, team goals and some goals for himself," said Dungy. "We haven't had that talk yet, but he got 16 sacks last year, so (the goal's) going to be a little higher than that, I'm sure."
In a way, Sapp's personal goal, in terms of reaching an ideal weight, are parallel to what he hopes the team can accomplish. The disruptive lineman is getting an early start on what he believes will be a dominant campaign for him; perhaps the team can do the same for the first time in four years.
"The last three years, starting out 3-4, we haven't been able to get ourselves off to a good start," said Sapp. "The one year we did, we made a good run in '97. That's the thing we've got to do: get off to a good start and sustain it. With our bye week being in the third week of the season, we've got 14 straight weeks, so we've got to play football and we've got to be on top of our game, because we are the hunted. Like it or not, we are the hunted, and we've got to accept that challenge and go out and perform."
Well, if Sapp is intent on making his presence felt in 2001, he's certainly off to a good start. Here's the number one lesson Dwight Smith, a rookie cornerback, has learned in a day-and-a-half with the team:
"Stay out of Warren Sapp's way."
Smith shared this with a laugh, but Sapp has certainly been a vocal presence on and off the field during mini-camp. The rookie probably heard his new teammate providing commentary during the special teams drills the last two mornings, but that hasn't slowed Smith down.
The third-round draft choice out of Akron is not your prototypical cornerback in that he packs over 200 pounds onto an extremely fit 5-10 frame. He is by no means overweight; in fact, Smith has such a low body fat content that he had difficulty with cramping on the first day of camp.
While his size shouldn't hamper his efforts in the secondary, it could very well make Smith a valuable addition to Joe Marciano's special teams.
In those special teams drills, in which one punt-coverage 'forcer' tries to get off the line and downfield against a pair of blockers, Smith has been a standout on both sides of the line. His combination of speed and power, plus a willingness to do whatever is asked of him, could make him one of Marciano's top men.
Like all of the rookies, Smith has attacked the special teams drills with intensity.
"I take everything seriously," he said. "Every play could be your last. Any time I step on the field, I'm going to give everything I have. I try to tell all the young guys that. If they expect me to play special teams all year, I'm going to play special teams all year. It's a blessing for me to play at this level. Any chance I get to play I'm going to take advantage of."
Marciano's crew lost Don Davis to the St. Louis Rams as a free agent. Floyd Young has not been resigned, at least to this point. Shelton Quarles played far less on special teams last year as his role on the defense expanded. There are holes to fill on special teams and Smith is willing to step in.
"I think I can," he said. "Any role they want me to fill, I feel like I can. I want to give back to them for drafting me. Any way I can help them, I'm going to do it."
With Pro Bowl CB Donnie Abraham and nickel back Brian Kelly returning, and with big-play corner Ronde Barber re-signing as an unrestricted free agent, Smith might not step into instant playing time on defense this year. If that's the case, he hopes to pitch in on special teams and usefully bide his time.
"It's the same thing in college," said Smith. "You always have to wait your turn. Just don't get frustrated, and feed off the older guys. The older guys know more than you, so use them as a teaching tool. Learn from them, so that when it is your chance, you can step in and not miss a beat."