The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn with the 76th overall pick in 2020 and then nabbed quarterback Kyle Trask at number 64 in 2021. Both were coming off dominant runs in the high-powered SEC, with Vaughn rushing for 2,272 yards and 6.4 per carry in two seasons at Vanderbilt and Trask finishing fourth in the 2020 Heisman Trophy voting after throwing for 43 touchdowns. Neither was necessarily expected to have a huge role on a loaded Buccaneers offense right away.
As it turned out, the Buccaneers signed Leonard Fournette after he was released by the Jaguars in 2020, just a few months after drafting Vaughn, and that has limited the young back's exposure in his first two seasons. Meanwhile, Trask landed in a quarterback room with the G.O.A.T., and the Buccaneers also had an experiened backup for Tom Brady on hand in Blaine Gabbert. Vaughn and Trask had to look to the future just a bit.
But the future comes on fast, and eventually some questions have to be answered. With the Buccaneers giving Fournette a multi-year contract in the spring and then drafting ASU back Rachaad White in April, will Vaughn be able to carve out a role in the Bucs' offense now and in the years to come? And given that the Brady era could end as soon as next offseason, is Trask a potential long-term answer under center?
Those answers are still in development, but both young players helped their causes on Saturday night in Indianapolis, as the Buccaneers finished their 2022 preseason with a 24-10 loss to the Colts.
The Bucs' coaching staff gave Brady and the starting offense its first work of the three-game preseason, but that only lasted one possession, a 66-yard hurry-up field goal drive. After that, as has been the case throughout the preseason, the team's reserves struggled to find consistent production on offense, converting just one of 11 third-down tries and finishing with 272 yards of offense. But Vaughn was a bright spot, particularly on the team's one touchdown drive, a second-quarter march led by Gabbert. After one drive featuring Fournette and two in the hands of White, Vaughn got the call and put the ball on the goal line with consecutive sharp runs of 14 and 12 yards up the middle. He powered it in himself on second-and-goal from the one to give the Bucs a short-lived 10-7 lead.
"I thought he had a good night," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "I thought he hit the holes well, I thought he had some positive yards. He's tough. He did some things he hasn't been able to do in the past from just seeing him, from that standpoint – cutback runs. And he showed a lot of toughness. I'm very pleased with the way he played."
The Buccaneers have five running backs on the roster and will likely keep either three or four through this week's cutdown to 53. Fournette and White appear to be locks and mid-August addition Patrick Laird would seem to be a long shot. The other back in the mix is veteran Giovani Bernard, who has been sidelined by injury for several weeks. Vaughn may be battling Bernard for the third spot in the rotation, or possibly for one roster spot. It worked to his advantage that Bowles and the coaching staff called a simplified game plan with 29 rushing plays and 26 passing plays.
"There were some linemen we wanted to see," Bowles explained. "We have quite a few guys hurt so we didn't really want to throw the ball as much. We wanted to keep the quarterbacks safe when people started going down. We wanted to look at some linemen in the run game, we wanted to see some running backs, we wanted to see Ke'Shawn a little bit more and we wanted to see some blocking from the tight ends so we kind of kept it that way."
A heavy dose of action was nothing new for Trask this month. The Buccaneers had a stated goal of getting a long look at their second-year passer in this year's preseason, and they followed up on it. After getting the majority of the playing time in the first two contests, he came in to lead a two-minute drill at the end of the first half on Saturday night and then stayed in for the entire second half.
Trask's final numbers were neither eye-catching nor troubling. He completed seven of 10 passes for 94 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions, finishing with a 99.6 passer rating. His most notable moment was a scrambling 46-yarder to rookie tight end J.J. Howland down the right seam, a play that showed the kind of pocket awareness that was occasionally missing the past two weeks. He was sacked just once and he avoided losing the football, which as an important step forward.
"I thought we saw a lot," said Bowles. "I thought he grew for his first time playing significant time after not playing that much last year. I thought he had some moxie last night. He got out of the pocket two or three times and made some throws, made something happen, which is what we wanted to see. He grew in the offense. I'm not saying he was perfect, by no means."
Could Kyle Trask one day be handing off to Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the first quarter of a regular season? Again, those questions don't yet have an answer, but Vaughn showed explosiveness on Saturday night and Trask showed progress throughout his three-week preseason test.
"He'll continue to learn, but we thought his confidence grew," said Bowles of Trask. "We thought we saw a lot of things from a positive standpoint. We can still work on some things mechanically and get some things done but I thought he had good command of the offense and he's only going to get better."