There were little doubts about rookie guard Russ Hochstein's run-blocking ability, but Head Coach Tony Dungy says Hochstein has also shown more athleticism than expected
Being, as this is, a piece on Russ Hochstein, there's one little thing we need to say right off the top:
Sorry. A little-known federal mandate requires the use of that word in any article regarding a Nebraska offensive lineman.
And Hochstein is, indeed, a guard from the University of Nebraska. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie also has blue eyes and close-cropped blond hair, which does nothing to ruin the stereotype. And, yes, he's homegrown, hailing from a little town of about 1,500 people in northeast Nebraska.
Of course, this young man from Hartington is also an intelligent, well-spoken college graduate currently rooming with a Yalie – but, hey, Hochstein's not trying to fight the Nebraska image. It's not exactly an insult to be included in the long-running tradition of Cornhusker linemen.
"I take it with a grain of salt," said Hochstein of the farm boy image. "I'm very happy and proud of where I'm from. I was just lucky to have the opportunity to play at Nebraska. That was my dream growing up. And now, this has been unreal to be a part of this in the pros.
"I'm by no means the strongest lineman who ever came from Nebraska nor the most talented, but I'm here, so I'm going to make the best of it and do what I can."
On Thursday, 'here' is the players' lounge at One Buccaneer Place, a space that will soon become part of an expanded training room. Just a few feet away is the training room proper, where Hochstein just finished his daily dose of physical therapy. Roughly three weeks ago, he had surgery to place a screw in his left foot, an attempt to stop the development of a stress fracture in the fifth metatarsal. So now his summer routine includes time on the stationary bike, circuits around the weight room and a date each day with the Bucs' Director of Rehabilitation, Jim Whalen.
On this day, as most, Whalen has Hochstein on a table in the training room, with the lineman's left foot dangling of the end, working it back and forth to regain strength in the foot and ankle. As Hochstein's toes wiggle with the effort, Whalen stops short of asking him where the little piggies went, but this Cornhusker just might know.
"I grew up in a really small community in Nebraska," said Hochstein. "I was talking to some guys the other day in the locker room who grew up in the inner city, and it's a big contrast. I graduated with 30 in my class, and these guys graduated with thousands in their classes."
The Cedar Catholic High School Class of '96 might have been small, but Hochstein did not go unnoticed. He was an all-class, all-state, even All-America two-way player in Hartington, leading his school to the state playoffs for four straight years. At the University, he was a driving force in a Nebraska offense that ran nearly at will, an All-America first-teamer and, as a senior, the Cletus Fischer Native Son award choice as Nebraska's top college football player. We can make corn or livestock quips all day – Hochstein won't mind – but the real stereotype of a Cornhusker lineman is nothing but complimentary in the NFL.
"He's very much like most of the Nebraska guys – very self-motivated, very hard-working type of guy, tough," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy. "He reminds you of most of the linemen you've seen come out of there. I think he's going to have a good temperament for the pro game."
This is a week after the last voluntary workout of summer ended and almost three weeks after Hochstein last took the field in a practice jersey, but Dungy easily remembers his practice-field impressions of the rookie fourth-round pick.
"Russ is doing fine," said Dungy. "The run-blocking is what they emphasize at Nebraska, so the pass protection is what he's going to have to work on a little bit more, as most rookies do. He's a little more athletic than we might have thought when we drafted him."
Hochstein's first impression was good, but abbreviated. When the stress fracture in his foot was discovered, he and the team decided to move fast. It is a condition very similar to one TE Patrick Hape suffered through last spring and summer, when the team waited it out a bit to see if Hape would recover without surgery. In the end, Hape had to get a screw inserted in his foot, and he was slow to work his way back in camp. In Hochstein's case, both he and the team wasted no time.
"Once we found out I had a stress fracture, they came to me to discuss it," said Hochstein. "I walked in one morning and they said, 'Here are your options.' There weren't any good options other than putting a screw in it because of my weight and the position I play. The chances of breaking it were good. They said we could schedule surgery and I said, 'Let's do it right away, then.' They literally had it done in 24 hours. They scheduled me for the next day. I was really happy with the way we didn't wait around."
Reporting very little discomfort just a few weeks after the procedure, Hochstein was moving around on crutches the next day and staying involved in practice, even if he couldn't suit up.
"We were told in college that you can always get mental reps," said Hochstein, who generally stood behind the play during team drills and watched the left guards make their moves. "I always like to stand by the quarterbacks coach so I can hear the plays, then I figure out what my position is doing and some other things. I think those mental reps can help. I also went through the meetings with everybody to make sure I can pick up all the information. I'm still a rookie and will be all year, so there are a lot of things I still have to learn."
The main purpose of the four weeks of voluntary sessions was to install the Bucs' offensive and defensive systems so that the players, particularly the newcomers, would be ready to hit the ground running when camp begins on July 29. Hochstein's decision to jump right into surgery cost him a few days of that installation.
"It was going pretty good," he said of the daily practices. "I think I found out more than anything that there's a lot of work that has to be done. I've got to improve in some areas and keep working to stay in shape. I wasn't too happy about my injury but it's something that I'll bounce right back from. I'll just have to work a little harder to get back from it and be ready for camp.
"I was disappointed and frustrated that I had to miss some time, because that last week would have been really good for picking up on the offense. All those reps, learning the line calls, would have been a great help to me in working on the things I need to improve. I was kind of sad when I missed out on those, but I got a good two-and-a-half weeks of practice in."
Dungy isn't concerned.
"It would have been helpful for him to do some of the pass protection drills that we ran, just to get that base and get a feel for it, but we felt it was better to do the surgery at that time so he'd be ready to go 100% for training camp," said the head coach. "But I'm sure he'll be okay."
Hochstein's decision is obviously the right one, since it is in training camp that the real player evaluations are formed. With former super-sub Kevin Dogins off the depth chart and second-year guard Cosey Coleman moving up into the starting five to replace the departed Frank Middleton, the Bucs' back-up interior line is an unclear but promising picture. Versatile fourth-year man Todd Washington appears to be a strong candidate at any of the three inside spots, but Hochstein could easily fit into the team's plans this year or next.
At the moment, however, Hochstein is concentrating on proving he belongs on the 53-man roster and letting the coaching staff take it from there.
"All players hope to play and have a role," he said. "Right now, I just want to make sure that I am definitely on the team once the cuts start. That's my main concern. If I can play a role and maybe get a few plays here and there, that would be fine with me. If I don't, I would understand.
"I mean, look at the guys that are in front of me…some great players. Randall McDaniel's been in the Pro Bowl for I-don't-know-how-many years now, and I can learn a lot just from watching him. Right next to him is Jeff Christy, and those guys are just great players. Whether I play or not, making this team is a huge first step to me. After that, I'll worry about the rest later."
Hochstein has primarily worked at left guard to this point and isn't yet being asked to develop the versatility of a Washington.
"Eventually, we hope that we can flip-flop him," said Dungy. "We usually start the rookies out at one spot. If he develops into the third guard, it would be nice for him to be able to flip-flop, but Todd Washington has played both guard spots and center, so we've got some guys with flexibility. We'll probably just work (Hochstein) at one spot until he becomes comfortable."
Actually, Hochstein does have his eye on a second role, potentially. As the Bucs have cast a wide gaze in search of a long-snapper to replace Morris Unutoa, the 'Husker's abilities in that area caught the team's eye. Obviously, his immobility the last few weeks shut down that project for the time being, but he plans to keep working on it during the summer. He served as the back-up for that role in Nebraska, though he never was called upon to snap in a game until the post-season all-star circuit.
Though he admits to being a bit raw with his snapping, Hochstein thinks he could be an asset in that regard.
"I hope so," he said. "I hope Coach hasn't forgotten about me! I'd love to. If I could be either the backup position there, or anything, I would love it. Special teams are fun to be a part of and long-snapping's something I really enjoy doing."
Somewhere down the road, that could be an intriguing option for the Buccaneers. It never hurts to have a long-snapper that stands 6-foot-4, weighs 300 pounds and is capable of stepping in at guard.
That would be enviable size for a snapper, and size is something that you expect in a corn-fed Nebraska lineman. What else that stereotype holds, the Bucs are eager to discover.