RB Michael Bennett has played half a season for the Buccaneers, but he has yet to face the heat of a training camp in Orlando
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came off the practice field a few minutes after noon on Wednesday, having done as much organized team work as is allowed this time of the year. Running back Michael Bennett had participated in the entire workout, and his darkened jersey indicated that he had worked up quite a sweat.
It had been a relatively pleasant day in Tampa, however, breezy and considerably cooler than the day before, and Bennett didn't think he had quite endured enough. The former Viking and Chief running back didn't arrive in Tampa until late in October last fall, and so he has yet to face the grueling conditions that often accompany a Buccaneers practice.
He's got a plan to change that, so that he doesn't find the experience overwhelming when training camp opens in the leaden heat of Orlando in July.
"That's why I have to continue to stay out here and face the heat," said Bennett. "I need to be out here between noon and three so I can run when the heat is at its peak and get used to it."
He'll have plenty of opportunities. The Buccaneers' 14-week offseason training and conditioning program lasts until late June. There are a handful of "organized team activity" days (OTAs) left on the calendar, and a mandatory three-day mini-camp during the final week to top it off. Bennett plans to be around for all of it, and it sounds as if he's going to be putting in a good amount of individual work on his own.
"[I have to] stay on my toes," he said. "I am getting older and the younger guys are working to take your job, so you have to keep that edge."
Bennett isn't really that old, even by NFL standards. He'll turn 30 a few days before the Bucs break camp this summer, and he hasn't put much mileage on his wheels the last two years, with just 97 carries during that span. But he is right that the competition for work in the Buccaneers' backfield will be intense this summer, and not just from young guys.
The potential return of Cadillac Williams to full strength would make the backfield especially crowded. Fifth-year man Earnest Graham blossomed in Williams' absence last year and Bennett proved his speed can still be a big asset when he got his opportunities. Former Bucs star Warrick Dunn has returned and could eat up many of the third-down reps, if not more. And rookie Cory Boyd joins 2007 draftee Kenneth Darby as two young guys thirsty for an opportunity.
So Bennett is trying to make sure he stays near the front of the race by using this time of the year to the fullest. After coming over in a midseason trade last year, Bennett is just now getting an immersive opportunity to learn the offense. His to-do list at this time of the year is as much about his head as his legs.
"Just mentally getting the reps," said Bennett, ticking off what he's trying to accomplish this spring. "When you're not in, watching the other guys. Getting keyed in on all your keys, so you know what to do when the blows start flying. Then you get in there and get ready to go."
And, to top it off, some solo runs in the thick of the afternoon heat, even if practice was over hours ago. Bennett isn't necessarily anxious for training camp to arrive, but he's determined to be ready.
"It will be here when it gets here," he said with a laugh. "This is going to be my first one [in Tampa]. No one looks forward to training camp, but I heard it's going to be a really hot one."
A Healthy Start
Michael Clayton had an amazing 80 catches as a rookie in 2004, but has totaled just 87 more in the three seasons since. Though there is plenty of evidence that an assortment of injuries have played a major part in his struggles to recapture that first-year form, Clayton isn't trying to compile a defense.
He simply isn't interested in giving excuses.
"I won't ever blame it on injury," said Clayton after the Bucs' Wednesday workout. "I come out and I compete. It's not been because of injuries that I've been held back. I go out there and I compete. I hit linebackers and I play hard. I will never say that it's because of injuries."
Perhaps Clayton believes that looking for an excuse for the decline in his numbers can only hold him down as he tries to move on. A good finish to the 2007 season – he had 10 catches for 131 yards in the last two games, nearly half of his production for the whole year – has him confident that he will be able to seize the next chance that comes his way.
"I have no fear," said Clayton. "My main objective right now is to go out and utilize the opportunities that I've been given. I was able to finish the season off strong, and hopefully that sticks. My body is healthy; I'm able to come out here in OTAs and practice hard and we'll see what happens. Nothing is given in this league and you can't take anything for granted. You just continue to work hard and once opening day comes we'll see where we stand there."
No small part of that confidence, and his overall good feeling this spring, is that return to health. Even if he won't use injuries as an excuse for what has already happened, he does believe that health can make a difference going forward.
I'm healthy," he said. "No nagging injuries. No knees. No shoulders. No feet. No toes. It's a part of the game, but I just don't have those problems right now. It doesn't mean as much right now as it does during the season, because obviously you have to stay healthy during the season as well, but right now you're able to get to work, you're able to improve your game because you're not injured, and that's big for me."
This year's rookie class will join in the offseason program next week, and it won't be long before the newcomers get a taste of what Buccaneer football feels like in the fall.
As has become a yearly spring tradition, the Bucs will move one of their OTA practices next week to Raymond James Stadium. After working out at One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday and Wednesday, the team will cap its week with a session on their home field, just a few blocks down the road.
The Bucs' annual practice at RayJay is designed to give the new players, in particular, a glimpse at what they are working to achieve. The workout will follow the same pattern as those at the team's headquarters on Tuesday and Wednesday, but the stadium setting is sure to add a level of intensity. In previous years, the Bucs have spiced up their stadium practice with elements of the usual Raymond James game-day atmosphere, such as music, videoboard highlights and cannons firing on the pirate ship after every "touchdown."