The young players participating in the weekend mini-camp had a chance to make a good first impression on Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin
They gathered for one final group shot, a team picture for a team that existed for just three days, at least in its current configuration.
And even though the 55 or so players in the picture would soon scatter to the four corners of the country, and even though about half of them were not likely to return any time soon, the camaraderie of the moment was still real. It was built on a shared passion for football…and hope.
The team picture was the last on-field activity of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers three-day rookie mini-camp. It came at the end of a 90-minute morning practice on Sunday, the third full workout of the weekend. And it captured about five dozen athletes with different backgrounds and, more importantly, different types of roster status.
The camp was also the Buccaneers' most organized field work of 2006 so far, even if there were no veterans involved. It came a week after the NFL Draft and was comprised of the Bucs' new draft class, a handful of undrafted free agent signees, a few first-year players already on the roster and 30 men in town on tryout contracts. What was the camp designed to produce?
According to Head Coach Jon Gruden, first impressions.
"They get a chance to make an impression on the coaching staff, and hopefully our coaches made an impression on them about what's important and what it's going to take to make this team," said Gruden. "We got some relationships started, and more than anything I think that's what we accomplished."
For the camp participants, the core goal was different from player to player. Draftees like first-round guard Davin Joseph wanted to make it obvious that they should be used in significant roles this season. Undrafted free agents like USF running back Andre Hall wanted to prove that they probably should have been drafted and will be assets in training camp. First-year players like safety Steve Cargile wanted to start solidifying their spots on the 80-man roster for camp.
Under the most pressure were the 30 tryout players, who had to make a strong first impression if they wanted to be back at all. Make no mistake, it is likely that at least a player or two from that list will be back; last year the Bucs eventually signed seven of the 20 players who participated in the same camp under tryout contracts.
So how good were those first impressions. On an individual level, that will be the main topic of discussion in the offices of Buccaneer coaches and personnel men over the next few days. On a team level, however, the collection of rookies and first-year men on the field this weekend left a strong impression on Gruden, who demanded a lot out of the unfamiliar group and, for the most part, got it.
"I was really pleased with the effort, and our execution got better," said Gruden. "We obviously have a long way to go but we do see progress."
The players in the group most likely to have an impact on the team this season were those drafted high or fairly high last weekend. Gruden was particularly pleased with how well such newcomers as guard Davin Joseph (first round), tackle Jeremy Trueblood (second), wide receiver Maurice Stovall (third) and cornerback Alan Zemaitis (fourth) handled the transition to the NFL and the Bucs' schemes.
"The right guard looked like he played football in the league before," said Gruden, delivering a strong compliment to Joseph. "He looked natural, he looked instinctive; he's not perfect, but I thought he did an excellent job. I thought Trueblood made a real good transition to right tackle [from left tackle]. Stovall made a couple real acrobatic plays again today. Zemaitis, much like we thought, is a very instinctive, reliable football player who has a ways to go but I do believe he fits our structure and he's going to be a good player."
The rookies got a little taste of what is to come, meteorologically, when Sunday proved to be the hottest and most humid day of the three-day weekend. Gruden didn't mind Mother Nature's twist of the dial; he was happy to see how the young men, many of them new to Florida, would respond.
"Many of these guys are not from the tropics here," said Gruden with a grin. "They are not used to this humidity. They thought it was hot today; they have no idea what 112 heat index is going to be like in Orlando. You know, if you can't compete full-speed in this heat you can't earn a job here. I hope they pick up their conditioning, watch their diets and make it a full-time job."
Joseph came off the field Sunday sweating hard but in no way beaten down by the heat. He knew he had started out nicely with his new employers.
"There are a lot of challenges going into rookie mini-camp, learning the long days, the heat," said the Florida native and Oklahoma star. "There are a lot of different challenges, but to get through it, to get through this weekend and know that I did well feels really good. It's great momentum to take into the OTAs and training camp also."
For those like Joseph who will be back, this weekend was only the beginning. The coaches used the three days to lay a foundation with the rookies, so that they would more easily mesh with the veterans when the whole team practices together. That will happen in little over a week, when the team resumes its "organized team activity" days on May 16. All of the rookies whose schools have had their graduations by then will be allowed to return to Tampa for those practices.
"Many of these guys will be back in Tampa on the 16th of May," said Gruden. "There are a couple of guys who have later graduation dates who will try to stay on top of in the time being. Hopefully these three days set the stage for them in terms of what to expect, how we're going to practice in shorts, what we're looking for. I don't want the veteran players to get irritable with any rookies who are slowing down the group."
In other words, Gruden hopes he and his staff have made it possible for the newcomers to make another strong impression later this month.