Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Into the Fire

If Kenyatta Walker doesn’t return for Friday’s game against the Jets, rookie T Jeremy Trueblood could start in his first NFL contest, an opportunity he’s eager to seize

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Rookie T Jeremy Trueblood has had his hands full with the Bucs' relentless defensive ends

Jon Gruden, like most NFL coaches, doesn't spare a syllable when one of his charges makes a mental mistake on the practice field. On Tuesday morning, however, near the end of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second week of training camp in Central Florida, Gruden managed to get his point across to such an offender with a single word: "Rookie."

That was a fact, on the face of it. The object of Gruden's ire was tackle Jeremy Trueblood, a second-round draft pick just a few months ago. Trueblood is a rookie, but Gruden's delivery made it seem like the gravest of insults.

The context here is key. Trueblood may be an NFL neophyte, but he is also, at the moment, the starting offensive tackle on quarterback Chris Simms' blind side. The massive (6-8, 316) tackle from Boston College won't get rid of the "R" next to his name on the team roster until next winter, but he has to start playing like a veteran right now.

Thus, Gruden finished the thought a moment later: "There are no rookies in the NFL at this time of the year."

On Friday, Trueblood is likely to start at right tackle in his very first NFL game. That probably would not have been the case had Kenyatta Walker not aggravated an oft-injured knee early in camp and missed most of the last week of work. Walker, the incumbent starter in Trueblood's spot, did not practice again on Tuesday morning, which would seem to increase the chances that he won't suit up for Friday's preseason opener against the New York Jets.

"It's just a great opportunity," said Trueblood. "You never want to wish an injury on anybody and I hope Kenyatta gets well as soon as possible. I just call it an opportunity; it's not like I beat him out or anything. I'm just going to take this opportunity to do as well as I can and improve myself as much as possible."

Trueblood moved up to the starting offensive line when Walker went to the sideline; of course, he has also gotten his share of second and third-team snaps over the last week as he has rotated almost exclusively with first-year man Sam Lightbody. Circumstances have made Trueblood's first NFL camp much more rewarding – and much more taxing – than he could have imagined.

"The more reps you can take, the more beneficial it's going to be towards your play," he said. "That's been great. It's a little tiring at times, but I can't ask for anything more. I can't ask for more reps to try to get myself better, so I've really enjoyed it."

On Friday night, Trueblood will find himself pitted against established league veterans, taking on such pass-rushing ends as Shaun Ellis and Bryan Thomas. Fortunately, he's spent the past two weeks honing his skills against the likes of Greg Spires and Dewayne White. Even if it's been a few more reps than would be ideal, Gruden believes that trial by fire will have Trueblood hardened for Friday night.

"It's very physically taxing," said Gruden of Trueblood's extended load. "You get a little sloppy, you get a little worn out, when you take the amount of snaps that he's taking. The same with the guys on the left side with Torrin Tucker out. He's doing a good job. He's getting a lot of reps and he's also got his hands full because we're pretty good over there at defensive end."

Actually, Trueblood is looking forward to seeing somebody else across the line, and not just because a player like Spires can be so relentless. Like most of the men in training camp, Trueblood hasn't played a real game in eight or nine months.

"It gets really old hitting the same people over and over and over," he said. "You start figuring out what each other are good at and what each other are bad and you're just really tired of playing each other. It's going to feel really good to hit somebody else.

"I want to put on a real NFL uniform. I'm tired of practice uniforms. I want to get out there and play some real ball, play football the way it's meant to be played."

Of course, when you're playing the game live and you make a mistake, the consequences can be worse than a little chewing out from your head coach (though you might still get that, too). Obviously, that's the reason for the harsh practice-field reactions; training camp is intended to burn away the mistakes when they can't really hurt you. As full of venom as that word came out of Gruden's mouth - rookie! - it didn't particularly bother Trueblood. In fact, Gruden has also called the young man unflappable, which is definitely a compliment.

"I've messed up my fair share but you've got to put it on the backburner of your mind," said Trueblood. "Think about it the next time you're in that play so you don't do it again but don't think about it the next play you run. That's just how I approach it."

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