RB Rabih Abdullah is working to add fullback to his repertoire in 2001
The first thing they told him: You're on the team.
That was three years ago, and they've told him a few other things since. But let's rewind to 1998.
Rabih Abdullah was an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that summer. Not only was he one of about 20 rookies in camp without the benefit of a draft number by his name, but he came from little Lehigh University, which had never produced a Buccaneer, and very few NFLers overall. He was obviously a long shot.
But, late in August, after he had put up the surprising preseason total of 280 rushing yards, on just 50 carries, they told him he was on the 53-man roster. They also told him he was inactive each Sunday that fall, but Abdullah was still the only undrafted rookie to make the team, that year or the next.
The next year Abdullah ran the ball well in preseason again, but they had something else to tell him. Learn to contribute heavily on special teams or you might be resting on Sundays again. With hardly enough carries to satisfy Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott, Abdullah wasn't going to be asked to tote the rock very much, barring injuries. To stay active, he needed to be a producer in the kicking game.
So he stayed active in 1999 and made 16 special teams tackles. The next year, the coaching staff made it clear that LB Shelton Quarles, formerly the team's best special teams player and now a starter on the defense, was not going to be used both ways that fall. That was a potential problem for the special teams, but Abdullah got another message from the coaching staff that summer. He felt he needed to pick up the slack.
" I had to, with Shelton starting," said Abdullah, who feels some of the same pressure again this summer. "This year, we lost a couple of guys, so we need the experience. Last year, I knew I had to contribute and I learned the special teams a lot more than I did my second year, so I can be that guy with the experience this year."
And so now we catch up with Abdullah in 2001, and guess what? They've just told him something new.
Turns out the coaching staff wants a little more out of Abdullah this year. They've asked him to learn the fullback position in addition to halfback, to give the team's running back corps a little added versatility, and maybe to make those gameday activation list decisions a little easier.
"I've been playing mainly fullback in the recent mini-camps in order to learn the position," said Abdullah. "They want me to gain around 10 pounds. They want me to get a little stronger and a little thicker in order to take the beating that position involves.
"I've got to gain a few pounds. I'll be taking on linebackers in the 250, 260 range. That's a big person to be taking on 15, 16 times a game, so I want to have that bulk, that extra muscle mass. As far as my ability, I'm confident I can do it."
That's the thing. When they tell him to do it, Abdullah has done it, and that's why the team believes Abdullah can play fullback. He seems to be still a work in progress when it comes to football. His emergence on special teams was just as unprecedented.
"I had never played kickoff, kickoff return, punt or punt return," said Abdullah of his pre-NFL career. "I did special teams in high school, but I was the returner. I never had been a mid-line guy. It was just a matter of learning it, but once I did, I was able to let my athletic ability take over and not think about it as much."
So he's adding some bulk and taking home the playbook at night, and so far he's felt good about his work at practice. Like the fresh crop of undrafted rookies, however, he is not really being evaluated on his performance yet. The mini-camps and voluntary workouts of spring and early summer are just about learning.
"Once the pads go on, a lot more will be said," he reflected. "We can run around in shorts all day, playing two-hand touch, but it's not going to matter until the pads go on. That's when you'll see where people stand."
Abdullah hopes he's standing on the field a little more often. That's why he has embraced this new task as an opportunity. Rather than seeing it as a relinquishing of his shot at running back – after all, he gained 70 yards on his 16 carries last year – Abdullah views his new fullback work as a shot to produce even more and a further cementing of his spot on the 53-man roster.
"It's different than running back, but I'm still involved in the offense and contributing, maybe catching some passes," he said. "You're on the field, you're playing. That's all I want to do.
"You never feel secure. Once you get into that security thing, you get more complacent and you lose your edge. You should always feel like you have to watch out – not to the point where it affects your performance, but you should never just feel comfortable. I don't think you'll get your best out of it that way.
"This year, if things work out, I'll have to contribute in some sort of way. I feel good about doing that. I want to contribute. It's just a matter of getting physically ready and mentally prepared. Once that happens, I'll do whatever they want me to do."
Given that his numbers during rare opportunities have been good, and that he seems to have an intriguing mix of size and shiftiness, Abdullah couldn't be blamed for wondering if there was more out there. But that's not his approach, never has been during his four years in the NFL.
"I'm happy where I'm at right now. It's great down here and I've had a lot of opportunities to play. I don't know what is out there for me on another team. I can say I would like to start – everybody would – but I don't know what's out there and I feel good about my opportunity here."