DT Chartric Darby has always been a hard worker, but refinement in his technique has him headed to training camp with confidence
With the exception of the eight players on NFL Europe teams, every single member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2001 roster attended Wednesday's voluntary practice.
The main purpose of these May and June workouts is to teach the team's offensive and defensive systems in order to get everyone on the same page for August's training camp. In effect, these 80 players are working on coming together as a team.
Still, with such a deep and talented roster, there are dozens of compelling individual story lines. There are players trying to justify high draft slots or overcome low ones. There are lesser known names from last year trying to trace a higher profile in 2001. There are new faces in key positions.
We're going to take some time to catch up with a few of those players, beginning today with first-year defensive tackle Chartric Darby.
Or Chuck, as teammates and coaches call him for, one imagines, reasons of convenience. Darby may have a first name you haven't heard often, but Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin urges you to become familiar with it.
"You need to watch #91, Chuck Darby, because he could show up," said Kiffin. "This guy's going to be a football player. He really works hard and he's getting better every day. (Defensive Line) Coach (Rod) Marinelli's extremely high on him."
Like a few of the other Buccaneer assistants, Marinelli was in Chicago on Wednesday with Head Coach Tony Dungy for the league meetings. That's one fewer session for Darby to soak up Marinelli's wisdom, of which he can't get enough.
"I feel like I've progressed working with Coach Rod over the offseason," said Darby. "We've worked on the details – I've really worked mostly on my techniques. I was always a hard worker, but becoming more of a technician is one of my goals. Right now, I'm climbing the ladder, but I've got a long way to go.
"Last year, I was strong against the run, but this year, I think, I'm stronger against the pass. I'm using my hands better and I'm trying to become mentally sound. Like I said, I've got a long way to go but I'm progressing fast."
Darby spent last spring and summer in the NFLEL, but not as a Buccaneers-allocated player. He was unaffiliated with any NFL team when he began play for the Barcelona Dragons last April, but by the time the 10-game NFLEL season had ended, teams were lining up to give him another shot. The 6-0, 270-pound Darby chose Tampa, he said at the time, because he believed they had a history of looking past a player's size to see his ability.
The upshot of that decision was an entire fall to work under Marinelli and next to the likes of Warren Sapp, Marcus Jones and Anthony McFarland. While Darby didn't make the 53-man roster in September, he did land on the Bucs' practice squad, and stayed there throughout the season by showing unflagging desire. Now, instead of going overseas to prove he deserves a crack at the NFL, he's in Tampa every day, demonstrating that he's worthy of a spot on the final roster this fall.
"This is definitely a good opportunity," said Darby of a full spring at team headquarters. "This year, I have time to learn the system, work with the coaches, work with the other players. If you work together and come together as a team, you're going to play better, and I appreciate being a part of that this year. This is definitely the best opportunity I've ever had."
The first opportunity Darby had after tearing up 1-AA competition at South Carolina State was with the Baltimore Ravens, where he signed as an undrafted rookie and ended up on the practice squad for the balance of the season. He got looks the following season from Indianapolis and Carolina, but failed to land a spot on a final roster. He finally got some game competition with the Dragons last spring, but still believes he'll be playing ball in the fall once again.
"I feel that if I go out there, do what I'm supposed to do each day, everything is going to work out," said Darby of his chances this August. "I put everything in the Good Man's hands, but I know I've got to help myself, so I'm going to put it on the line every day."
In its current configuration, Tampa Bay would head to training camp with 15 defensive linemen, seven of which are listed as tackles. Last year, the team kept eight defensive linemen on the active roster, four of which were primarily tackles. Three of those four – Sapp, McFarland and James Cannida – remain on the roster, but DT/DE swingman Tyoka Jackson has moved on. Though the Buccaneers are expected to field one of the league's most dominant defensive lines this fall, there is still expected to be a strong training camp competition for jobs.
"Coach Rod always says that competition is the key to being a man," said Darby. "I love competition. The only thing I can do is grab it by the horns and ride it."