There are 16 defensive linemen and 13 offensive linemen on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' current camp roster. When those two crews hook up for a one-on-one pass-rushing drill during practice, the first few reps usually feature first-teamers going at each other but the matchups can become essentially random after that.
Not so on Tuesday, at least not when Davin Joseph was lining up for a snap. Those reps belonged to Gerald McCoy.
"Every rep that Davin goes, I'm out there," said McCoy after Tuesday's practice. "That's what we do."
And by every rep, McCoy means every rep, because he's trying to make up for lost time. When Joseph went down with a season-ending knee injury in the third 2012 preseason game – almost exactly a year ago – it not only robbed the Buccaneers' offense of a Pro Bowl blocker up front but it took away the primary whetstone that McCoy uses to sharpen his own game. Fortunately, the two had already spent weeks battling in training camp, so McCoy got in enough preparatory work to fashion his own Pro Bowl campaign in 2012.
Joseph's methodical recovery from his injury has kept him out of most of the team's practices (and both preseason games) during training camp, but this week the eighth-year player is back in action, taking part in full-contact drills, including those treasured one-on-ones with the defensive tackles. That makes the midweek job quite a bit tougher for those DTs, but McCoy, for one, wouldn't have it any other way.
"Dav is the man," said McCoy. "I love going against Davin. Every time he took a rep, I was there. Even if they said, 'Gerald, get out,' [I said,] 'No, I'm not getting out because Davin's up.' That's my partner when it comes to getting prepared for a season. That's just one thing we've agreed upon: When we go, we go."
Joseph was the Buccaneers' first-round pick in 2006, out of the University of Oklahoma. Four years later, the Buccaneers went back to Norman to pluck another first-rounder from the Sooners' roster in McCoy. That spring, Joseph was coming off the first of his two Pro Bowl appearances and it didn't take long for the two former Sooners to form a special bond.
"That's the kind of mentality we get playing at Oklahoma, and then he's just been mentoring me since I got in the NFL, staying on me," said McCoy. "If he thinks I'm having a bad practice he pulls me to the side [and says], 'Hey, it's not good enough, pick it up.' That's what we do. We go at it. That's why I couldn't wait for him to get back. When he came back, he was looking for me: 'Alright, I'm up. Let's go.'"
McCoy may have gotten a little greedier with Joseph's time on Tuesday, because at least one other defensive tackle had a chance to go up against the veteran guard on Monday. That was a first for rookie Akeem Spence, who had come to know Joseph mainly through his wide grin and friendly locker-room demeanor. The difference on the practice field was eye-opening for Spence.
"Dav, he's a beast, he's a beast," said Spence, appreciatively. "Gerald used to tell me [that] before, but looking at him I just didn't see it. Then I lined up against him yesterday and he threw me to the ground! The guy is good, man, and I have a lot of respect for him. I'm just going to keep giving him everything I've got when I get a chance to go against, and learn to get better every day."
Joseph is expected to be in the starting lineup when the Buccaneers open the regular season against the New York Jets on September 8; his potential participation in Saturday's game or the preseason finale is of a much lesser concern. His work on the practice field on Monday was a major step forward, and Tuesday might have been even more important given that he was feeling no effects from the previous day's ramped-up participation. Head Coach Greg Schiano said Joseph was "very good," on the practice field on Tuesday, an assessment with which his defensive linemen obviously agree.
As for Joseph himself, he is clearly optimistic, but that methodical and cautious approach has gotten him to this point and he won't abandon it just yet.
"[It's] close to 100 [percent], but it's how it's recovering every day," he said. "So it's taking a pounding today…I feel good now, but how will I feel tomorrow? That's the biggest thing about gauging what's too much and what's not enough."
For McCoy, too much of practicing against Joseph is never enough. Practice got a lot harder for him this week – and a lot more encouraging for the offense with their mauling right guard in place – but that's the best way to get ready for live action.
"He's a very aggressive player," said McCoy of Joseph. "He's not dirty by any means, but he's aggressive. But this is our game – if you can't handle it, get off the field. That's how it works."