On Thursday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith described rookie guard Ali Marpet as "smart," then followed that up, almost whimsically, with this line: "I like it when I'm describing our guys and talking about how smart they are."
Indeed, there is much a player can gain by excelling at the mental side of football. The 6-4, 307-pound Marpet may be brawny, but he's also brainy, and he knows he needs to use that brain to adequately adept to the NFL. Specifically, Marpet says he needs to learn to recognize what a defense is about to do.
"One thing that I need to learn how to do is see the defense more," said Marpet, who is not only transitioning from his college position of tackle to guard but also from Division III football to the game's highest order. "At this level, you need to be able to guess what's going to be happening based on what you see in the defense. So I need to start looking at safeties, and that's something I've talked to Evan and Logan about, helping me out there."
Evan and Logan are Mrs. Smith and Mankins, also known as the Buccaneers' presumptive starters at center and left guard, respectively. If the coming months go as planned, Marpet will be joining them at right guard, with fellow 2015 second-rounder Donovan Smith hopefully manning left tackle. The two veteran linemen have 15 NFL seasons and 186 starts between them, and they undoubtedly have mastered the art of reading defenses in order to gain an edge. Marpet is showing good decision-making skills simply by making a point to seek out their knowledge.
"I've particularly learned from Logan and Evan and some other offensive linemen who have been around the league for a while," said the rookie. "Those are the guys you want to learn from. [The coaches] throw a lot at you quick, but I think I've done a pretty nice job of learning from older guys. They have a lot to teach you, and [Offensive Line] Coach [George] Warhop is an awesome coach. A lot of it has stuck, and I still have a lot to learn."
Marpet won't have to devote any attention to his contract status; he agreed to terms on a four-year deal with the Buccaneers on Wednesday night and physically signed the papers on Thursday after practice. In truth, that issue had never been much of a brain drain, as rookie deals have become relatively formulaic since the new CBA was put in place in 2011. Marpet didn't have much to do with the negotiations but said it was still nice to get that potential distraction out of the way.
What he has been working on constantly ever since the end of Hobart's 2014 season is learning to play on the interior offensive line. He first caught the Buccaneers' eye in the Senior Bowl when he more than held his own against Division I competition, and he continued to improve throughout the pre-draft process.
"I played mostly left tackle in college and now I'm playing right guard," said Marpet. "There is a significant change, but I worked at right guard when I was in college and then working out through the Combine and the Senior Bowl I worked at guard so it's something I've adjusted to. I've also tried to learn a little bit of center, so I've done some pre-practice snaps and things like that so I can be as versatile as I can.
"Everything's a lot quicker as a guard. You have a 300-pound guy on you right away, whereas when you're a tackle you have a little bit of space to work with, and you have to be a little more patient."
Lovie Smith noted again on Thursday that it's difficult to get the true measure of a lineman until the pads go on and the collisions begin. Even so, Marpet can already tell that he'll be facing a serious challenge when training camp arrives. His natural practice-field enemies, the defensive tackles, might be the most talented position on the Bucs' roster, led by Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy. Marpet is glad that he's getting at least a general warm-up against McCoy and company before being thrown into the training camp fire.
"There are some freaks out here that are extremely, extremely quick," said the rookie. "It's nice to get the first taste of it here at OTAs so that when camp rolls around I've had a little bit of practice against them."
Marpet praised the Bucs' strength program and said he can already tell that he's gotten stronger since he arrived in Tampa. Until he can start flexing those muscles against the opposition, however, he can make his most significant strides in the mental game.
"It's a pretty big difference [in the NFL]," said Marpet. "Obviously we don't have the pads on yet so it's hard to get that physical aspect. It's going to be that much different. But right now, the mental side of it, there's a lot being thrown at us."