There may not be much that can hold second-year TE Alex Smith back in 2006
The successful rookie campaign of running back Cadillac Williams and a much improved passing attack led by Chris Simms in 2005 have expectations for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense higher than ever, but integral to Head Coach Jon Gruden's running and passing games this year will be the play and development of the tight ends, particularly emerging second-year star Alex Smith.
The 24-year-old tight end, who the Bucs selected in the third round of last year's draft, kicked off his second professional season Friday under the hot Orlando sun as the team participated in its first training camp practices of 2006.
"You try and prepare as much for it as you can in the offseason, but standing out here, nothing really compares to it, so you've just got to get your work in and get after it for a while," Smith said on beginning the grueling two-a-days.
At 6-4 and 260 pounds, Smith is big enough and nasty enough to be an effective run blocker, but it's his pass-catching skills that have Bucs fans believing they may have an offensive weapon in the mold of Antonio Gates, Jason Witten or Alge Crumpler. Although Joey Galloway's career year attracted much of the attention – and national highlights – Smith quietly ranked second on the team in receptions (41) and third in receiving yards (367). That production didn't go unnoticed by Gruden, and the Bucs are expected to employ a significant amount of two-tight end sets this year to better utilize Smith's skills.
"I think he could be a great tight end, and I think he was at times very, very good last year," Gruden said. "He came a long way. He's a quick study, he's in tremendous shape, he's got a lot of versatility, he's a lot bigger and more powerful than people realize. He's a great kid, he's reliable. We're going to try to use him more than we did a year ago, and we did get some real good production last year from him."
For Smith, it's a matter of providing a reliable target for Simms and helping form running lanes for Williams.
"That's a big part," Smith said. "You know, Cadillac is our go-to-guy. That's the main reason why we want two tight ends out there – to help with that running game. We're probably only going to go as far as Cadillac goes, so that's that much more pressure on us."
Better understanding of the game along with his role in the offense is one of the many benefits of having a season's worth of experience under his belt, and Smith emphasized the importance of such experience.
"It makes a world of difference," he said. "I'm not thinking as much – I'm able to go out there and play instead of worrying about my assignments and worrying about where I'm supposed to be. I think it makes the game that much faster for me. Having a whole offseason to work with [Simms] was big for us. I think he has a comfort level with me and has a feel for what I can do, so I think it's big for us."
Still, Smith says training camp is about getting better, as a team and individually, and he plans on using the 30-plus practices over the next three weeks to improve his skill set.
"I'm looking to get better all around," he said. "The simple things like running routes and being faster and as complete as I can be. I think I'm getting bigger and stronger as every year passes, and just better overall – run blocking, pass sets, everything."
As for those lofty expectations for the Bucs' offense?
"I think we will build upon what we started last year," Smith said. "I think that was just scratching the surface of what they expect from the tight ends and what we're capable of, so I'm expecting big things from us this year and definitely looking forward to it."