Who's going to get the ball into the end zone for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this fall? The candidates are many, and they all seemed to be giving their stump speeches on Thursday morning at One Buccaneer Place.
The sixth day of practice at the Buccaneers' 2012 training camp could have been called Red Zone Day, because the team dropped a majority of its drills into that hotly-contested territory. Whether they were working one-on-ones with the receivers and defensive backs, running a 7-on-7 passing drill or having full teams on each side bang away at each other, the Bucs were doing most of it inside the 20-yard lines on this scorchingly-hot morning.
That led to a lot of reps around the goal line, and quite a few of those aforementioned candidates made their arguments for being first on Josh Freeman's ballot when the time comes during the regular season. Wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, tight ends Dallas Clark and Luke Stocker and running back Doug Martin were all among the players who turned in plays that might have been touchdowns during an actual game. Some of them were acrobatic or speedy enough to draw cheers from a small group of onlookers.
Stocker, for instance, set of a series of flying chest-bumps among the offensive players by setting up a defender with a fake out and a cut in and then diving to catch a hard pass in the end zone. Jackson took a skinny post right to the goal line and held onto a Freeman dart in traffic and Martin found the sideline on a swing pass and might have had enough open real estate to score, though it's difficult to tell when defenders are "thudding" rather than tackling.
There were plenty of outstanding moments for the defense, as well, including a tipped-ball interception by rookie linebacker Lavonte David in the end zone that required a hair-trigger reaction. After practice, Head Coach Greg Schiano offered that his team's defensive backs had turned in one of their better days of work at this year's camp. Of course, it's the splash plays by the offense that draw the biggest reactions during a camp practice, and when prized free agent acquisition Vincent Jackson is involved, that's enough to warm a Buc fan's heart on a day when the mean Florida sun is heating up everything else.
"I think we got a good start on red zone today, some things we want to clean up," said Jackson. "We obviously want to be very balanced. If we get some good matchups out there, we'll take a shot but we do want to be able to pound the ball inside."
Jackson's presence in the red zone periods, and every other team drill in practice, is just as pleasing to his defensive teammates, who appreciate the challenge. Cornerback Aqib Talib is known to relish the game-day assignment of covering the other team's top receiver, and now he can get a daily feel for that sort of action on the Bucs' practice field.
"That's like the prototype receiver in the NFL now," said Talib, referring to his new 6-foot-5, 230-pound teammate. "I get to work against the prototype receiver every day. I'm no slouch myself on those deep balls. We're going to go at it and we're going to make each other better."
"Work" is the operative word for this summer (as it also was in the spring) for Talib, who has simply done everything the new coaching staff has asked of him since the arrival of Greg Schiano and company. Even with the first preseason game rapidly approaching, Talib is more focused on his daily requirements on the practice field.
"Right now this is camp," he said. "This is work time. We're just trying to master our craft, own our defense. The time's going to come when we get to test it out on somebody else. Right now, work. Come out here and get in shape, be in the best shape we can be in."
Talib's focus is exactly where Schiano wants it to be.
"I think he's done a very good job," said the coach. "I think he's trying to do some things that are new and sometimes at this point in your career you might meet resistance, but [with him] not at all. He's trying to do what we're asking him to do. He's very coachable and he's getting in better and better football shape, which is important at corner because that's your deal. You run all day but no one really cares. There are five or six plays that your whole day is based on yet you're running all day so it's not easy."
Neither is covering Jackson easy, especially when the ball is in the red zone and any catch might mean seven points. But Talib relishes the test, and Schiano certainly enjoys watching the two go at it.
"I enjoy the competition," said Schiano. "And I enjoy the competitors. I love their competitive spirit that's for sure."
Former Teammates Alstott and Moore Soon to Be Friendly Rivals
Mike Alstott and Dave Moore are used to being on the same side.
Alstott and Moore played nine seasons together in the NFL, all with the Buccaneers and interrupted only by Moore's two-year stint with the Buffalo Bills from 2002-03. They suited up in the same locker room 141 times, celebrated 70 wins together on the field, even scored a touchdown in the same game nine different times.
They've even been on the same side of the business ledger, as partners in several ventures, both men choosing to stay and raise their families in the Bay area. So it will be exceedingly strange – and wildly entertaining – when Alstott and Moore find themselves on opposite sidelines of a football game at the end of this month.
Coincidentally, both former Buccaneer Pro Bowlers elected to accept jobs as head football coaches at local private high schools this offseason. Alstott has taken over the program at Northside Christian while Moore is the new head man at Shorecrest Preparatory. Neither was particularly looking for such a job when the year began, but the two separate opportunities just proved too good to pass up.
And neither man likely looked at their school's football schedule for the 2012 season at the moment they accepted their respective jobs. When they did, they discovered an amazing coincidence.
The first game that counts for either team this season falls on August 31: Shorecrest Prep visiting Northside Christian. Alstott and Moore remain two of the most popular players in Buccaneers history, so their presence on the sideline that Friday night is likely to bring much more attention to the Northside field than either school's program has ever received.
Neither Alstott nor Moore really wants to be the focal point that evening, but they concede that the added attention will be a good thing for their players.
"It's ironic," said Alstott. "I think both of us weren't looking to be a head coach but it just came about, and then the first real game that counts we're going to be head-to-head. We're both inheriting programs that need a lot of work and mentorship. It's going to be good for both schools, the press and everything we're going to get out of it. I think it's about the memories, first and foremost, for the kids. You've got to remember, it's not about Dave and I, it's about the kids on both sides of the ball. I don't think they ever will experience a game like this one coming on August 31st."
Added Moore: "It's going to be a great opportunity for the kids. It's going to be fun playing in front of a full house, there's an opportunity for some good media coverage. That's really what's exciting to me, for them to have the opportunity to play in a big game. It's the opener…unfortunately for me, it's not at home! It's all about the kids. Unfortunately, Mike and I aren't going to be in pads, for anyone expecting to see that."
As head coaches at small private schools, Alstott and Moore know they will share many of the same challenges in the years ahead. One thing each former Buccaneer has already discovered is that there is a lot more to being the man in charge than drawing up the playbook.
"It's a learning curve," said Alstott. "Being a coach, everything thinks it's between the lines. Being a head coach, there are a lot of things you have to worry about and coordinate. I'm still learning that on a day-to-day basis. But I'm blessed to have a group of guys, a great foundation to work with and mentor and try to teach life values through football. I think that's important."
Moore was watching the Buccaneers practice on Thursday morning when he discussed his new gig and the upcoming game against his buddy. On the field in front of him, groups of players moved smoothly from one station to the next, with coaches following detailed scripts, equipment managers providing all the necessary paraphernalia and trainers always ready with water and Gatorade. During his playing days, Moore didn't have to worry about where all the practice necessities were coming from.
"We're kind of spoiled at the pro level," he said. "You come out to practice and all the fields are set up, the water is out there, the schedule is made, the coaches have everything in order as to what they're going to coach. That's the toughest part, the most time-consuming. There's a lot of extra work that goes into it that has nothing to do with pure Xs and Os."
Both Alstott and Moore have teenage sons who share their passion for the game of football, and that played into their decisions to get into high school coaching. And both feel as if they can have an impact on young men based on their own lifetime of experience in the sport.
"For me it's a good chance to spend some time with kids, especially mine, and share some of the things I did for 25 years of my life," said Moore. "I think [Alstott] is trying to do the same. He's trying to give back from something he was able to do for so long. We're both at private schools with limited numbers of players, so we both have our challenges, but it's going to be a very rewarding experience for both of us."
"I couldn't be happier," he said. "Everything's going great. I've got great support, a great coaching staff, and I couldn't be happier."
Even so, one of the two former teammates is going to be just a little bit happier than the other by the end of the night on August 31.
Lewis Playing with a Sense of Urgency
Training camp is always fast-paced, three weeks of hard-core football, and the Buccaneers' 2012 camp has been particularly intense under the stewardship of their new head coach. But third-year cornerback Myron Lewis is feeling his own added sense of urgency this summer.
"[There's] a lot of pressure," said Lewis. "I've been hurt the past two years and nobody's really seen me play. I'm putting that pressure on myself to stay healthy and do my job. I know I can play. They drafted me for a reason, so I'm going to go out there and play and try to stay healthy."
The Buccaneers drafted Lewis out of Vanderbilt in the third round in 2010. He was the 67th player selected overall, and the franchise has previously had considerable good fortune with cornerbacks taken in the third round (think Ronde Barber, Donnie Abraham, Dwight Smith). At the time, Lewis was looked at as a potential long-term candidate to replace Barber.
That could still happen, but through his first two seasons Lewis has played in just 20 games with one start. As he said, a big part of that story has been injuries, particularly regarding his hamstrings. He's healthy now and has made modifications to his diet and his daily stretching regimen to try to avoid more injuries in the future. And he's just as focused mentally to take his NFL career to the next level as he heads into Season #3, planning to take advantage of the opportunity to make a good impression on a new coaching staff.
"I started off a little slow, just trying to get used to this technique," said Lewis. "It's all about buying in and focusing and keeping my concentration. Coach Schiano expects a lot out of all of us. It's a high-tempo practice and you've got to go hard every single play. If you don't go hard, they're going to see it on film, so you have to go hard every moment."
While injuries have been a stumbling block for Lewis the past two years, an unfortunate mishap for one of his teammates has actually broadened his own opportunity in this training camp. E.J. Biggers, the apparent front-runner for the nickel back job and a player with extensive starting experience, sustained a foot injury during the first practice of camp and is out for at least several more weeks. Lewis was unhappy to see his fellow DB suffer such misfortune, but he knows it potentially means more responsibility for him.
"It's bad to see your teammate go down, but coaches are depending on the next man to come up and do the same job that he was doing in front of you," he said. "I've got an opportunity to go in there and play, so I'm going to go ahead and play."