Hard Knocks* put rookie running back Jeremy McNichols in the spotlight. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' preseason finale on Thursday night gave McNichols the stage he needed.
The Buccaneers drafted McNichols in the fifth round this past April, which wouldn't normally put a young player under intense scrutiny. But with starting running back Doug Martin suspended for Tampa Bay's first three games of the regular season and McNichols sharing a similar scouting report to his fellow Boise State product, expectations for the rookie ran high. As has been chronicled in great detail by the cameras for HBO's Hard Knocks reality show, McNichols has had some tough moments adjusting to the pro game, in terms of both learning the playbook and figuring out the speed of the game.
Through the first three games of the preseason, McNichols had 14 carries for 43 yards. He was also captured by the Hard Knocks cameras missing a block that led to a sack of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in Jacksonville. On Thursday night, McNichols was the second back into the game after Peyton Barber and he ran for 36 yards on 10 carries. Those stats don't accurately reflect how well the rookie ran, as one seven-yard carry was called back due to holding. In general, McNichols hit the hole hard and churned his feet for extra yards.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' Preseason Week 4 matchup with the Redskins.
"I just let it loose this game, better mind, clearer mind, just knowing I was going to play a little bit more," he said. "I think I've still got a lot to learn, a lot to grow as a running back. But it was good to just cut it loose out there today. I feel like I grew a lot this game, after those other three games. So I'm happy about that."
The Buccaneers will make their 53-man roster decisions over the next 36 hours. The entire depth chart is fluid, with needs at one position potentially affecting the numbers kept at another position. With Martin suspended, it's an open question as to how many backs the team will keep, with Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims and Peyton Barber seeming to be on even footing. If the team keeps four backs, McNichols would presumably be in competition with second-year player Russell Hansbrough, who also had a good game on Thursday night.
"I got the opportunity," said McNichols. "That's all I can ask for and that's all that I wanted. What's on film is on film now. I think I was able to play a little bit faster than I was the previous three games. I felt a little bit more comfortable tonight. Like I said, I've still got a lot to go. Tonight was okay but I want to still continue to get better."
When McNichols missed that block in Jacksonville, the Hard Knocks cameras caught Barber consoling his teammate, saying he had made the exact same mistake the previous year. That exchange underscored how difficult the transition from college to the pro game can be for young players.
"It's more mental than anything," said McNichols. "You've just got to be on it. These guys have been in the league eight, nine, 10 years and it's your first time, so it's just a mental game that a lot of young players go through. I've just got to crawl out of it."
McNichols made a move in the right direction on Thursday night. The Buccaneers' team-builders have some difficult decisions ahead, but the rookie from Boise State has done all he can do at this point. He would appreciate an opportunity to finish what he started.
"I felt a lot of progression from the first day of camp until now," said McNichols, "but I've still got a lot of work to do."