Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Catching On

Todd Yoder came into his first NFL camp well prepared and is making the most of it

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TE Todd Yoder has the receiving part down and is working hard on becoming a complete tight end

Todd Yoder comes from New Palestine, Indiana. Haven't heard of it? Well, unless you've made the acquaintance of one of its 500 residents, you've probably had no cause to.

If you're a fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you may soon make Yoder's acquaintance, however. The rookie from somewhere east of Indianapolis will play in his first NFL game on August 4 when the Bucs take on the Washington Redskins in Raymond James Stadium. Never mind that there will probably be more people in Section JJ than in all of New Palestine; the numbers that currently concern Yoder are 88 and 53.

The first is how many players Tampa Bay currently has on its roster. The second is how many it will have after August 27, the final cutdown day before the regular season.

Each of the 88 wants to safely make the transition to 53, but some seem like mortal locks while others are locked in mortal combat. As an undrafted free agent, it is natural to put Yoder in that second group, but the rookie from Vanderbilt has acquitted himself nicely so far. With last year's second-stringer, Patrick Hape, still sidelined by a foot injury and the team's highly-touted draft choice, James Whalen, watching with a hamstring strain, the time is now for Yoder to solidify the good impression he made during mini-camp in April.

"You get a chance to show yourself," said Yoder of the decreased ranks at tight end. "When you're in there, you just have to make a play, do the right thing."

Yoder and the team's other lesser-known free agents simply have to look around to see the truth in Head Coach Tony Dungy's assertion that every player in camp has a chance to stick around for the games that count. Jerry Ellison, Jeff Gooch, Tyoka Jackson, Rabih Abdullah, Scott Milanovich, Kevin McLeod, Kevin Dogins…the simple fact of the matter is that there isn't always a huge difference between being drafted late and signing as an undrafted free agent.

"They give a great shot to free agents or lower-round draft picks to really make the team," said Yoder. "That's great. Free agents out there can still play. You've got to get you're opportunity, to get a shot at it. In this camp, they give you that chance.

"There were a couple of other teams talking to me, but the Bucs brought me in before the draft for a visit, a physical, stuff like that. They brought me in and I got to meet the coaches, got to meet everybody. I felt real comfortable about the people here and where this team was going to go. The choice was easy to make."

The Bucs had no difficulty deciding whether they wanted to bring Yoder in, either. As he showed in the spring mini-camp held one week after the draft, Yoder has skills that could quickly translate to the NFL level. He feels he was well set up for this opportunity at his alma mater of Vanderbilt.

"Our school is thought of as an academic school, but the coaches that we have are pro coaches, too," said Yoder. "With (Head Coach) Woody Widenhofer, they prepared us so that the jump wouldn't be difficult from the college to the pro level. The offense that we ran at Vanderbilt was very similar to what we run down here. The only difference is in some of the terminology. The plays and the formations are exactly what we ran back home, you just have to learn how to rename them."

Yoder might never have gotten an NFL shot, period, had Widenhofer not taken over as Vanderbilt's head coach. The former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator of the 1970s took Yoder from wide receiver, where he had played his first two seasons, and moved him to H-back. Two years later, it's obvious that was a good decision.

"I kind of got bigger just with age, and we got a new coach (Widenhofer) that came in my junior year," said Yoder. "He told me that he had a spot for me at H-back and that's what you're going to play. He said that if I could gain some weight it might help me out. The move helped me. I wasn't fast enough to be a receiver (in the NFL), I don't think. But coming in as a tight end, I'm probably one of the faster tight ends. Instead of being a slow receiver, I can be a faster tight end."

In the NFL, of course, that's only half the battle, as prolific pass-catching tight ends like Yoder and Whalen are finding out. Yoder may have earned four letters at Vandy by catching 80 passes for 1,267 yards and eight touchdowns, but he'll need to add blocking to his repertoire in the pro ranks. That's the aspect of his game he's been concentrating on most keenly.

"You've got to be well-rounded," he said of the tight end qualifications in Tampa. "I would definitely say that I come from an offense where I was more of a pass-catcher than a blocker. So that's something that I've had to work on, the blocking part of it. As far as the pass-catching, I used to play receiver and I've got experience catching the ball. That's easy for me. The blocking's the tough part and I have to really work on that."

The Bucs think he'll be a quick study, in part because of his scholastic background. The Buccaneers of recent vintage have elevated 'intelligence' in the list of player qualities they stress, possibly explaining how there are suddenly five Vandy players on Tampa Bay's roster. That school's academics, as a matter of fact, was what drew Yoder down to Tennessee from Big Ten country.

"Both my parents were big academics nuts," said Yoder, adding that his father is an assistant superintendent and his mother is a teacher. "Plus, they were the only school that wanted me to play receiver. The Big Ten schools like Indiana and Illinois all wanted me to play safety. It came down to wanting to play offense, so I went down there."

Even if the buzz about Yoder was good this spring, the rookie hopeful has no real idea of how well he is doing. He believes most of the feedback has been good.

"I get that general feeling, but it's tough to stay with some older guys and veterans in front of you," he said. "You don't really know how you're doing. It's a situation where you have to just keep working hard and get your reps. You have to show up and make some plays."

In the meantime, he's enjoying his stay in Tampa (population: somewhat greater than 500) and his opportunity in the Bucs' training camp.

"It's a lot of fun," said Yoder. "It's difficult, but I'm having a good time out there."

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