Michael Woods was playing second base in the Tigers' organization a little over a month ago, but now he's trying his hand at cornerback
As the head coach at Grambling, Doug Williams tried to recruit Baton Rouge prep star Michael Woods to his program in the late 1990s, only to lose out to Southern, the most powerful team in the Southwestern Athletic Conference at the time.
Southern wanted Woods for both football and baseball, but he ended up on the diamond exclusively, turning into one of the nation's best players as a power-hitting, base-stealing shortstop. The Detroit Tigers drafted Woods with the 32nd overall pick in the 2001 draft, installed him at second base and planned on building around him as one of the organization's top prospects.
Five years later, there was another recruiting call between Woods and Williams, now a Personnel Executive for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Only this time, it was Woods – or, rather, a local Baton Rouge representative for him – that called Williams.
This is one of the stories behind the 30 young men who are in Tampa this weekend on tryout contracts, participating in a three-day rookie camp that could be their ticket into the NFL. You won't hear most of the stories; many of the 30 will see their association with the team end on Sunday. But quite a few of them include the kinds of twists and turns that Woods professional path has featured. The latest turn is this unique opportunity at One Buccaneer Place.
Woods was released from the Tigers organization at the end of training camp this year. His baseball tools were never questioned, but a couple knee injuries cost him most of the 2002 season and led to a difficult 2003, and he has never found the same stroke he showed in college. This is not an unusual baseball story, really. Detroit's 2001 draft was considered one of the strongest in the league, but very little has actually come of it at the major league level.
Woods may yet get a call from another baseball club wanting to give him another opportunity. For now, however, he has decided that he would like to give football another shot, and that prompted the call to Williams. The Bucs, who are always on the lookout for talent and needed to fill out their rookie camp roster, were more than happy to oblige, given Williams' blessing. The 6-1, 200-pound Woods, who said he was last clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.4, will try his hand at cornerback, a technically difficult position.
"He told me I could come on out and he'd give me a shot, so here I am," said Woods. "I'm here now and I want to play football. Right now, this is the way I'm going."
Corey Lamkin is thinking the same thing. He gave up football, one of his childhood loves, to play basketball at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, helping to form the foundation of a fledgling hoops program. He finished his career as the school's all-time leading rebounder but didn't progress to the NBA. Lamkin began working out with a former New York Jets assistant and the association eventually led to a spot on the Jets' practice squad last November. The position: Tight end. He was going to try to be the next Antonio Gates.
Lamkin didn't stick in New York in the long run and is obviously raw, as is Woods, but he's giving it another shot with the Bucs this weekend. It won't be easy, of course. It's safe to say that all 30 of the tryout players are under the gun in terms of the time they have to make an impression.
"We've got a lot of guys here that I'm really not totally familiar with," admitted Head Coach Jon Gruden on Saturday, after the second of three weekend practices was finished. "Some of these guys come from obscure backgrounds. But it's really been awesome. These guys, these are great stories, all of them. They've worked their hearts out, and it makes for a great weekend. I've enjoyed it.
"We've got guys from all kinds of different backgrounds, and you never know. You just never know."
Gruden credits Williams, Director of Pro Personnel Mark Dominik, Director of Player Personnel Ruston Webster and Director of College Scouting Dennis Hickey with finding the 30 athletes who would form the tryout field for the weekend. Obviously, they left no stone unturned. In addition to potentially unearthing a gem or two – last year's rookie/tryout camp produced seven eventually roster signees – the search for talent also allowed Gruden and his staff to conduct realistic practices around their nominal rookie class.
"They did a heck of a job fielding a roster that allows to come out here and practice and get 75 or 80 plays run," said Gruden. "This is the one time during the year you're able to bring in guys, sign them to a weekend contract and have somewhat of a tryout. You don't want to get guys who are so far removed from football that it's not realistic for guys like Davin Joseph and some of the first, second and third-rounders. But there are some guys who weren't drafted like Andre Hall who are pretty good football players who are much like them and want to show that they should have been drafted and can compete."
Hall slipped through the draft like most of the tryout players but was actually signed to a contract by the Bucs immediately afterward, so he can be fairly certain that he will at least make it to training camp in late July. The tryout players are trying to win that same ticket, just like cornerback James Patrick of Stillman College and running back Derek Watson of South Carolina State did last year. A year later, the team thinks quite highly of those two players and is hoping they show enough to win roster spots in this year's camp.
The tryout camp, then, is sort of an adjunct to training camp, a way to make a few roster decisions before the 80-man camp roster is finalized. In addition, some of these players may be signed at a later date, perhaps during the season to the practice squad or after the season to a new free agent contract.
"It's harder to take a lot of these guys to training camp because you're only allowed to have 80 guys," said Gruden. "When you could have 150 guys or 120 guys, you were afforded the luxury of bringing in guys like that. There is the practice squad. Some of these guys will show enough athletic ability and instincts and strength and size and intriguing aspects that you might want to stick them in the World League. Send them over there and see what happens from there."
So Woods, for one, needs to show that he has the type of raw football talent that can be shaped into an NFL player. He will clearly be rusty, but he doesn't have to show that he's a finished product at the moment. That would be asking quite a bit, considering he wasn't even sure what position the team would try him at when he arrived in Tampa.
"He's drawing from his past," said Gruden. "He played football as a young man. He's drawing from his past as a player, his athletic ability, and I'm sure he's counting on the game coming back to him quickly so he can showcase it. He does have athletic ability, I do know that."
Woods played cornerback, safety, wide receiver and a little option quarterback in high school. He also returned punts and kickoffs and is hoping he'll eventually get a crack at some special teams jobs. At the moment, all he really wants to do is turn some heads.
"All I can do is just come out and give it my all every day and hope I catch somebody's eye, hope somebody likes something about me and wants to keep me around," he said. "That's all I'm praying for."