Last season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Will Gholston started 11 games at left end and got onto the field for 61% of the team's defensive snaps. As Gholston enters his fourth NFL training camp and his first under new Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith, he is more concerned with maintaining that latter number than the former.
As a fourth-round draft pick in 2013, Gholston has already worked under three head coaches and four defensive coordinators, if one counts Lovie Smith's assumption of play-calling duties last year. During that time, he has seen his role alternately expand and contract. He earned two starts and played 29.5% of the snaps as a rookie, then opened seven games and got 49.3% of the action in 2014, with a noticeable spike of playing time around midseason. He's never made an opening-day start, but he's always managed to work his way into the mix at some point.
In 2016, that's essentially the entire goal, not only for Gholston but for most of his fellow D-Linemen, who are likely to be part of a very fluid depth chart. In fact, Gholston isn't even particularly worried about a depth-chart competition right now; instead, it's all about the reps for the crew helmed by long-time Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Line Coach Jay Hayes.
"It's definitely a rep chart, because Coach Hayes likes to roll," said Gholston. "If you look at his film when he coached in Cincinnati, he rolled all his guys. So what he told us basically was, 'Everybody's got to be ready.' It's not a 'next-man-up.' He's got a sub group, a base group and everybody interchanges. If you look at our film, everybody's with the ones, everybody's with the twos, everybody's with the threes.
"So basically right now we're working on who can build and perfect their craft now during camp and through preseason. Then I guess during the season we're still going to have that same kind of rotation."
Obviously, there is a competition to make the team first in order to be part of that rotation. The Buccaneers have 15 defensive linemen in training camp and probably wouldn't keep more than nine or 10. The defensive end position was spiked in the offseason by the signing of unrestricted free agent Robert Ayers Jr. and the selection of Noah Spence early in the second round. In addition, incumbent right end starter Jacquies Smith, who missed the offseason while recovering from a 2015 shoulder injury, is back in action.
On Thursday, as the Bucs opened training camp with a 95-minute unpadded practice in the morning, it was Ayers and Smith who took the very first snap of the first full-team drill, on the right and left ends, respectively. In the final full-team period, Ayers took the first snap at right end again but it was Gholston bracketing him on the opposite side. In the same period, Gholston later moved in to play defensive tackle with the second team.
"I was inside, outside…honestly my whole approach to the season is just to have fun," he said. "Just have fun with my guys, because you never know. It's the NFL, not for long. You've got to have fun when you can have fun."
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Versatility is something that Smith and Head Coach Dirk Koetter have been touting regarding their assemblage of linemen throughout the offseason. The 6-6, 281-pound Gholston is the only player listed as a "DL" on the Bucs' roster, rather than specifically DE or DT, for what that's worth. However, while he may have been the most notable inside-outside performers on Day One of camp, but he thinks many of his teammates will be doing the same thing as practices go on.
"Yeah, it's kind of an advantage [to play both], but if you look at it…well, wait 'til you see more," said Gholston. "I don't want to give anything away, but I feel like everybody is going to have an opportunity to play inside and outside. You never know until you find out. You just assume because I'm big I can do it, but sometimes the little guys can do it too."
What Gholston did by playing both roles in that same drill was give himself a better chance to make a mark on that rep chart. And even if his own focus is on having fun, the coaches are definitely fostering competition in order to find the best possible rotation.
"We have our rep chart still," said Koetter. "Our ones are getting about 50% of training camp – 50-30-20 is kind of what our ones, two and threes are right now. But there are some guys that float back and forth, and then when you get in your personnel groups on both sides, but that part's coming along. But this is competition. OTAs, we called it, 'No winners, no losers,' because we don't want to get guys hurt. Except for the periods [in training camp] when we don't have our helmets on, everything else is competition right now."
Gholston might open the season as the Bucs' starting left end, particularly if he continues to excel against the run as he did last year. He might find himself moving around based on situations and packages, and in that case he might not even be a starter at all. That issue is currently of no concern to the fourth-year linemen.
"We're just battling for reps," he said.