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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Hard Knocks Stresses Rookie Challenges

NFL newcomers like Chris Godwin, Riley Bullough and Jeremy McNichols took centerstage on Hard Knocks Tuesday night as the show neared its dramatic end.

The fourth episode of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made it abundantly clear – beyond any of the show's other insider revelations – that training camp is a supremely difficult challenge for rookies. That's especially true for those NFL newcomers not anointed with first-round ability.

And maybe that's the whole point of the show.

Buccaneer rookies Chris Godwin, Riley Bullough, Jeremy McNichols and Bobo Wilson all had significant storylines in Tuesday's debut of the penultimate Hard Knocks episode, and none of them had an easy time of it. Godwin battled the Florida heat, Bullough struggled to make an impact play in the Browns game, McNichols got caught in a mental error and Wilson tried to make the most of limited opportunities.

Perhaps the best scene of the episode, however, involved one of those rookies being counseled on the sideline by a player who might have been a huge Hard Knocks star if the NFL Films camera crews had been in Tampa a year earlier.

McNichols, a fifth-round draft pick out of Boise State whose game has been compared to that of Doug Martin, has been a favorite of the Hard Knocks cameras this summer, in part due to his friendship with rapper Snoop Dogg and in part because he's been a good illustration of how difficult it can be to adjust to the NFL. Tuesday's episode showed several moments of McNichols struggling in practice – in fairness, the show also accurately revealed that the entire team was struggling during the dog days of August – and then culminated in a missed assignment in Saturday's preseason game that led to a sack of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick, the Bucs' sideline and the coaches in the press box immediately recognized the mistake that McNichols made. So did Peyton Barber, a second-year running back who made the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2016. As McNichols takes heat on the sideline for his blocking mistake, Barber offers him some soothing words.

"I made the exact same mistake last year," Barber tells McNichols.

That obviously didn't stop the Buccaneers from seeing a bright future for Barber, whose own story has gone in a very happy direction. The season finale of Hard Knocks in Tampa is almost certain to feature the denouement of McNichols' attempts to duplicate that storyline.

And, of course, viewers will also see what the Buccaneers' ultimate decision is on Bullough, the undrafted rookie linebacker from Michigan State who has been a focal point of Hard Knocks since the first episode. It's clear how much team officials appreciate Bullough's efforts; it's still unclear if that will be enough to win him a spot on the 53-man roster, or perhaps the practice squad.

"He works at everything, he knows the defense," says Linebackers Coach Mark Duffner, during the type of coaches' meeting that fans would never experience if not for Hard Knocks. "He's everything you're looking for – toughness, awareness, study, confidence. It's just that he's limited movement-wise. I like the kid's competitiveness."

Godwin, a third-round pick, has had far more glowing reviews since the start of training camp, but Hard Knocks shows him wearing down in the grind of a hot Florida camp. It's the sort of development that is sometimes casually mentioned in a coach's post-practice press briefing – as in fact happened with Dirk Koetter last week – but is made far more real by the NFL Films cameras. Hard Knocks also reveals how young players overcome this issue – in this case, it helps that team leader Gerald McCoy takes time to help Godwin through his tough times. The ultimate result is a good one: Godwin is seen having a very good game in the preseason outing against Cleveland.

The fourth episode of Hard Knocks had plenty of the lighter, behind-the-scenes moments that make the series so compelling. Apparently, Montell Jordan's, "This Is How We Do It," is the impossible to resist, and it makes a repeat appearance during the Bucs' game at Jacksonville, with the show's top comedian, Chris Baker, adding another one of his dances. The team's rookie show is predictably entertaining, as is Koetter finishing a rough camp day by telling visiting NFL referee Walt Coleman, "Don't tell anyone what you saw at practice."

Amid the unsurprising camp struggles, there were also some very positive stars, including a locked-in Lavonte David, DeSean Jackson on a deep ball in practice, Donteea Dye on a disallowed TD in the game and, best of all, the delightful little girl that McCoy pulled out of the stands to dance with at practice.

Still, the stars of Episode Four were clearly the Buccaneers' rookies. Or, more accurately, the daunting challenges those young players face. Next week's season finale will almost certainly give viewers much more to those stories.

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