About halfway through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp practice on Wednesday morning, young fan Ryan Connolly was given the unique opportunity to stand right next to Head Coach Raheem Morris at midfield.
Ryan was invited onto the field when Morris saw a team staffer collect a football after punt returner Micheal Spurlock had flipped it to the boy in the stands. The coach knew his equipment men were trying to keep practice running smoothly, but figured Ryan would appreciate a chance to get close to the action even more than a souvenir. Morris eventually sent him back to the stands with a different football, this one bearing new signatures from Ronde Barber, Aqib Talib and a few others.
The Bucs were in the midst of a punting drill at the time, and Morris was able to give the 11-year-old from St. Pete a thrilling vantage point on the action while also keeping him out of harm's way. It was a good decision to send him back to his parents after that period, however, because shortly thereafter things got a lot more violent in Morris's direct vicinity.
There was nowhere safe to stand when the Bucs moved into their goal line drill a few periods later, at least between the 10-yard line and the back of the end zone. This was the first fully live drill of the year - in other words, real tackling - and months of pent-up aggression were allowed - nay, encouraged - to spill out.
The coaches ran only about seven or eight plays in this period, not wanting to put the players at too much risk of injury, but every snap was extraordinarily intense. About an hour after the two-hour practice ended, while addressing the media, Morris was still feeling the effects of the drill.
"I'm emotionally spent right now, because that was a game for us," he said. "That was awesome. That's what I want from my football team. That's how I want them to perform, that's how I want them to play, that's how physical I want them to be. I don't think you have to tell anybody, I don't think you have to say anything. I think you just have to go out there and do it every single day. You do it with consistency, you play smart and this young team can win games. That's what we've got to go out there and do."
In this drill, the ball is placed at the three-yard line and the offense has a maximum of three plays to get the ball into the end zone. There are no restrictions on the action; it essentially emulates a key moment in a live game. On Wednesday, the Bucs planned three possessions: the offensive twos against the defensive ones, the offensive ones against the defensive twos and finally the threes against the threes.
No matter what unit he was on, every player knew to expect maximum effort from the opponent. There is usually some kind of incentive on the line for the overall winning side of the drill - an extra hour before curfew, perhaps, or skipping a training run - but that's hardly necessary to red-line the drill's energy. That's taken care of by Morris, who knows how to motivate his young players for this type of drill.
"Ra's a high-energy guy," said second-year defensive tackle Roy Miller. "Players mirror the coach, as they say. It just gets us all hyped, and we want to go out there and stop the run even more for him. He's just a ball of energy for us."
The defense was unable to stop the offense on the first play of the drill, as running back Kareem Huggins started left and then cut suddenly upfield and into the end zone through a marvelous hole opened up on that side by the front line. That ended the first possession on just one snap. The second possession began with a Cadillac Williams run to the right that may or may not have resulted in a touchdown. The ref on the spot signaled the score but it was close and, after some deliberation, Morris overruled that call and the possession went on. Williams joked later that he agreed with the original call and questioned the objectivity of the man with the final ruling.
"To be honest with you, the ref told me I was good but the head coach is also the defensive coordinator," Williams laughed. "So he overruled the call and said that I didn't get in. But I felt like I got in. It was just exciting to come out for our first live action. It was good to have the guys hit pads, bump heads, and I think so far things are going good. I'm just excited for this season."
Morris may simply have wanted to extend the drill by a few plays because his men were clearly into it and he was seeing some very positive signs in the trenches. The Bucs have gone to great pains to rebuild their defensive front over the last two seasons, particularly with the draft picks of Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Roy Miller, and Morris appreciated the signs that it might be paying off.
"That whole up-front crew, I've been trying to hold off talking about them because we haven't played tackle until today," said the coach. "You got a chance to see them play behind their pads, get off the ball and compete, and it was a lot of fun. Those guys all put smiles on my face. That D-Line is looking real similar to one of the great ones that we had. Those guys have to figure out how they can all rush together and how they can all stop the run on the way to the quarterback. That's just got to be their belief, and they'll get it. They'll grow together, so I'm excited."
The defense dominated the rest of the drill, thanks in large part to that push up front. The offensive and defensive first teams lobbied for one more chance at the end of the drill and Morris let them have one "good-on-good" snap. In this case, defensive end Kyle Moore fought through blockers on the left edge and trapped Williams before he could get around the corner. Morris whistled the drill over after that play, though it took a little more time for all the whooping and hollering to die down.
"You've got to give it to Ra," said Miller. "He's over there getting us hyped up and everything. He's full of energy and he's getting us ready and we're feeding off of him, as well as the other vets on the team. Everybody's just coming together and jelling and today was a great example of that."
Miller was the one player on the field who may have been torn as to which side performed better in the drill. That's because he started out on the defensive line with the first-team defense but then later moved to the other side of the ball to play fullback with the third-team offense. Morris said that the young lineman is one of two defensive players the team has recently taken a look at as a blocker in short-yardage situations, in addition to linebacker Adam Hayward.
"He did it a little bit in Texas," said Morris of Miller. "We've been trying to get a little punch back there with Roy and he's always a willing guy to do some stuff like that. You've also seen Hayward back there a little bit, doing a little fullback in short-yardage periods. Those two...the more roles you can create for people on game day the more roster spots you can have. It makes it better for us on special teams, it makes it better for us as a team period. Hayward loves playing football and Roy loves an opportunity."
All 80 players on the team clearly loved the opportunity to hit for the first time since the end of the 2009 season. Pads and contact are prohibited by the NFL during the offseason, and while they are allowed during training camp coaches try not to overdo the fully live action. Injuries are a part of the game but nobody wants to hurt their own players.
Every now and then, though, you have to go fully live, and coaches simply hope their players respond with as much enthusiasm as the Bucs showed on Wednesday morning.
"That was an intense, physical, violent morning session. Both O and D-Lines were stout. Those are the practices that build and reveal character, and that was a nice one."