Skip to main content

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Falling From the Sky

Jeremy Trueblood met the challenge of catching a punt and his team got Tuesday off


Could you picture Clifton Smith trying a few reps at offensive tackle, where the typical assignment is hand-to-hand combat with a quick-trigger 300-pound defensive lineman?

You're unlikely to see the Bucs' Pro Bowl return man in that role; after all, he's called "Peanut" by his teammates in large part because he runs about 5-9 and 190 pounds. It would give Smith a much better feel for what teammate Jeremy Trueblood goes through on a snap-by-snap basis, though, and at the moment that seems only fair.

After all, Trueblood got a taste of what it's like to be Clifton Smith on Monday during the Buccaneers' first practice of OTA Week Four. Trueblood knew he was in trouble as he stared up at the punted ball heading in his direction and it just wouldn't stay still.


Don't tell Ronde Barber he's been through "a lot" of these NFL offseasons. That's not being nearly specific enough.

Barber interrupted an interviewer on Monday after one of the hundreds of spring and summer workouts he's been through since he joined the Buccaneers in 1997 to put a number on it. "Fourteen," he said. "I've done this fourteen times."

Barber wasn't really complaining; after all, Monday's workout was, like all OTAs, completely voluntary. Given those aforementioned career practices in the hundreds, it's reasonable to believe that the veteran corner could miss one or two and not slip too far behind. And, in fact, some of the practices this offseason have featured quite a bit more reps for the team's young, learning DBs than the seasoned veteran.

But Barber knows the Bucs are doing things a bit differently on defense this year, and he also knows that they are going to be counting on some different players.

After Head Coach Raheem Morris took over the defensive play-calling with six games remaining last year and began to re-incorporate some of the franchise's familiar Cover Two concepts, the volume of potential assignments on defense began to rise. The current defense is incorporating concepts both from the Bucs' own Cover Two history as well as more aggressive match-up schemes, and the playbook is thick and (hopefully) quite deceptive. Barber will be an important figure in making that hybrid scheme work, not only because of his wide range of skills but also because he will have to help guide such young defensive backs as Myron Lewis, Elbert Mack and whomever else gains a spot on the depth chart.

"These days, you're just figuring out who you have," said Barber. "You want to know if your third and fourth corner can actually play. You want to find out if your draft picks are what you thought they were. You don't really find that out in earnest until camp starts and you put pads on, but you can at least get a feel for it."

One thing Barber has definitely learned is that this Buccaneer team is as young as any he's ever been on. And one other thing: He doesn't mind at all. Youth brings a deficit in experience, though, but it can make up for it with enthusiasm and energy, and that's exactly what Barber has seen on the practice field and within the walls of One Buc Place.

"We're still young, very young," he said. "But I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. There's a lot of energy, guys walking around - it feels almost like a college atmosphere somewhat. I think that can be a good thing. We can rally around the young guys we're really counting on, and you kind of feel like you're doing something together. I'm excited about that."

Youth can also provide a boost of energy and intensity to a practice that could be in danger of wilting on a particularly hot day in Central West Florida. That's certainly what the Buccaneers were dealing with on Monday, probably the steamiest environment the 2010 squad has encountered yet. The heat was unavoidable and oppressive, and yet somehow Monday's workout seemed as active as anything the Bucs did last week or the week before.

A string of practices like that has the Bucs believing they are well ahead of schedule, despite working on thicker playbooks on both sides of the ball this year. In fact, even though the team could use up to 14 allotted OTA days - in which more organized practices and meetings are allowed by the NFL - the coaches felt they had built up a little cushion and could potentially skip one of those outings.

And that's where Trueblood and his new assignment came in.


Here's a statistical oddity from Buccaneer annals: Ronde Barber, though never in his career a return man, owns three NFL punt returns, including one he ran back 23 yards for a touchdown. Two came when the Bucs had him line up about 15 yards in front of the designated return man, guarding against potential short kicks. The third, though, was a deflected punt in a game in Chicago in 1998. The ball was touched by a Buc but still went forward across the line, fluttering to a stop near the left sideline. Barber got to it first and ran it in for the score.

So, technically, Barber knows what Trueblood was feeling when he was staring up into Tampa's deep blue sky on Monday. That deflected punt situation in Chicago was little more than a fumble return, but the two others did indeed come tumbling out of the sky.

And therein lies the problem.

There are many, many difficult things NFL players are asked to do. Trueblood has to learn fancy footwork, take on enormous bull-rushers and deal with lightning-quick rushers on the end. But few things in football have a higher level of difficulty than it would appear they have to the naked eye as fielding a punt.

If you've ever seen a fan trying to catch a punt during a halftime stunt, you probably understand why. It is quite difficult to judge where the ball is going to come down, so the uninitiated often realize at the last moment that it's about to land 10 yards in front of them. Adjust for that, and suddenly you're running backwards at the last minute.

And that ball doesn't just drift lazily into your arms. It wobbles, jumps and tumbles in unpredictable ways. That's probably why Head Coach Raheem Morris chose that particular task, and a thoroughly unsuspecting player, when he decided to put Tuesday's OTA practice on the line.

For reasons Trueblood never learned, Morris suddenly challenged him to catch a punt at about 11:30 a.m. during Monday's practice. If you catch it, Morris told the 6-8, 320-pound man, the entire OTA on Tuesday would be canceled. If you miss it, the OTA was still on.

So now the ball is tumbling out of the air. Trueblood tracks it and, as it gets close, he sinks to one knee, and then both. It strikes his hands near his chest, slips through - to horrified gasps from his teammates - eludes his frantic hands one more time and then is trapped between two hands and his right thigh, just a few feet off the ground. The catch is made.

"I had a lot of pressure for somebody who's never fielded a punt before," said a laughing Trueblood a few minutes later. "I'm glad I caught it. I feel for Peanut now, because there's a lot of twisting and turning and moving going on up there. It's harder than it looks. I was taking a knee no matter what. Yeah, I bobbled it, but I caught it and that's all that matters."

Trueblood then waded through a sea of teammates giving him flying hip bumps (with his height, he could participate without really jumping) and flipped the ball to a coach. No practice on Tuesday (again, it was voluntary, but whatever).

And that should be just fine, especially with next week's mandatory three-day mini-camp looming. Barber, who could empathize with the challenge Trueblood met, believes the team is very much on schedule and can afford to skip one day.

"In my head, these are bonus days," he said. "We're working it. We're getting ahead of everything. We've got more stuff in now than we've ever had in the past."

And now they might even have a new return man.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Latest Headlines