Slot receiver Sammie Stroughter suffered a foot injury in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season opener that will likely keep him out for a few weeks, so the team's familiar refrain of "next man up" once again comes into play as the Bucs prepare to take on the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
Fortunately, the Bucs believe wide receiver Preston Parker has the versatility and athleticism to fill in well in Stroughter's absence and help keep the offense from skipping a beat. Parker can also chip in on kickoff return, a role he played in his rookie season in 2010, and one that also had fallen to Stroughter to start the season.
Unfortunately, Parker is inexperienced, a former rookie free agent and second-year player with just 10 NFL games under his belt and a total of eight career receptions, half of them recorded last Sunday after Stroughter went down.
The Bucs aren't particularly concerned about that inexperience because there is one important characteristic Parker possesses that has his coaches and teammates – including quarterback Josh Freeman, who will ultimately decide who gets the football – confident he can step up and do the job: tenacity.
"Preston's an intense player," Freeman said. "You talk about a guy that goes out there and just hits linebackers in the face and gets up and laughs about it. That's Preston Parker's character. It's exciting. Obviously, Sammie's our guy. I've got the most confidence in the world in Sammie. Last year late in the year Preston stepped up in the Saints game and made some big plays for us. He's a guy that I trust and I know he's going to be huge for us."
That innate drive stems from an up-and-down collegiate career at Florida State and Northern Alabama that left Parker without a guaranteed shot in the NFL. Like most rookie free agents, he had to fight tooth and nail to earn a roster spot last season, and has had to continue to work hard and demonstrate his versatility in order to retain that spot and earn chances to make plays.
"I just tried to show the coaches that I can help on every team, offense, defense, special teams, and let them know that I can help," Parker said. "That's why they kept me here."
Parker saw action in nine games in 2010, catching four passes for 42 yards. He essentially matched those numbers last week against Detroit, finding space in tight man coverage and snagging four passes for 44 yards in the Lions' narrow victory. Parker didn't look out of place sharing touches with the likes of Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Earnest Graham and LeGarrette Blount.
"It's always good to show confidence, to show that they can rely on me and that I can go out there and play with Mike and Blount and block for Blount," Parker said. "So it was good showing the coaches I can go out and play."
That brief cameo in Week One, combined with a full offseason of studying and striving to improve, has Parker confident that his best is still yet to come.
"I don't know that I have to step up my game [in Stroughter's absence], because I always try to come in and work hard," Parker said. "But I knew I could work on some things. There's always things you can work on. I just wanted to know the playbook inside and out, and that's what I worked on this offseason, just looking at all the old stuff I had, just pages in my book bag that I could go over in case something happened and I could go into any position."
Sure enough, Parker's opportunity has presented itself, and the young receiver feels he's calm, confident and ready to contribute.
"I'm comfortable," Parker said. "Whatever opportunity they give me I'm comfortable with, because it's a job. I've still got to do my job. My strengths are just bringing something to the team, just like Sammie brought strength and excitement to the team. I hope I'll be able to push us forward to win games.
"It's always an opportunity when you get the ball in your hands just to show the fans and the coaches, just to make everybody want you around and keep you around. That's what you have to do once they give you the opportunity. When they put the ball in my hands that's what I try to do – get points for my team.
"That's the biggest thing, to take advantage of the opportunity."