Rookie G Davin Joseph noticed a difference in the speed of practice when the veterans joined in
It wasn't the thrill of game day, or even the buzz of training camp, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished up a week of "organized team activity" (OTA) workouts with an encouragingly spirited set of drills last Thursday.
The restrictions placed on voluntary offseason practices, and the fact that about half of the roster is in its first go-around with the team, will always impose some limits on May workouts. Still, some situation-specific drills – heavy blitz and red zone, for instance – seemed to have the squad in a competitive mood as the weekend approached.
Head Coach Jon Gruden appreciated the spirit. More than that, he appreciated how crowded the locker room was and how fully-populated the drills were. Near perfect attendance, even for these non-mandatory foundational exercises, continues to be a trademark of this Buccaneer team. Gruden expects a full house again this week as the Bucs spend three more of their 14 allotted OTA days.
"I liked the turnout," said Gruden. "I liked the fact that we have about 90 guys here working their butts off. I like the team. I like what we have here. We have a great work ethic. We've got some really good players, some great ones that have been around here a long time and some young players who want to become great. That's a good combination in the offseason."
That recipe was mixed for the first time last week, as the team's 2006 rookies got their first opportunity to practice alongside the veterans. Before that, the Bucs held one three-day set of OTA days in April, before the draft, and a mini-camp the weekend after the draft that was open only to rookies and first-year players.
That rookie camp, held two weekends ago, was considered a success because most of the young players were able to handle a rather deep and abrupt immersion into the Bucs' playbook. The agenda has moved forward with the calendar, however, and now the coaching staff is expecting more out of the newcomers so that they don't slow down the veterans.
"They got their eyes opened," said Gruden of the rookies in their first set of mixed workouts. "They were really the show in the last mini-camp because it was a camp that was put together around them. This camp is put together around Derrick Brooks and Cadillac Williams and Chris Simms. So I think they got their eyes opened with the volume of football, and the level of competition obviously was much higher. But I thought they hung in there and they obviously proved that they deserved to be here, and they also proved they've got a long way to go."
Rookie guard Davin Joseph, a first-round pick who is quickly proving to be a rather genuine quote, didn't deny that these latest workouts were quite a bit different than his first professional work two weeks ago.
"Fast, it's fast," he said. "And the pace is just…everybody knows what's going on, so they kind of have their own little calls. They're getting in a groove and I'm trying to catch up still. It's a little rough."
Fortunately, Joseph and his rookie mates don't have to be perfect to remain in the veterans' good graces. Having gone through this process many times before, vets like Brooks understand that mental errors are better committed in May than August. The very point of these spring practices is to slowly build to a point from which they can hit training camp with a running start.
"They need to come in here very humbly and try to soak in as much as they can," said Brooks of the rookies. "But they're going to make mistakes. The big selling point for those guys has been 'finish.' Hustle. You don't need talent to hustle, you don't need to know what to do to hustle…it's just hustling. Your mistakes, they'll get corrected. So far, they've been doing a good job of hustling. Again, we've made some mistakes, but we made fewer mistakes today than we did yesterday."
And sometimes that hustling will lead to a fun and spirited morning, as it did last Thursday. No real contact is allowed during these workouts, but defensive backs worked hard to deny completions in the red zone and defenders very enthusiastically heckled kicker Matt Bryant during a pressure-kick period.
"We're having fun right now," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "We're running around with the fellas and the boys. This is what we do – we chop it up every year at about this time. You always want to get work, you want to do work, you want to put in work. You want this thing to be feasible for everybody, for it to be efficient. You want to come here and gel as a team, build that chemistry."