Tampa Bay Buccaneers

On-the-Job Training

RB Aaron Stecker has adapted well under a crash course in special teams

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RB Aaron Stecker has quickly gotten used to running down other ballcarriers

Help Wanted. Position: Back-up running back for local NFL franchise. Responsibilities: Make tackles on special teams, possible kick return duties, occasional work as runner. Employment history: Some experience preferred, international work accepted.

Aaron Stecker wants to answer that ad. In fact, you could call him an employee in training already.

Stecker signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last fall during the 1999 season, after rookie RB Autry Denson had left the Bucs' practice squad to sign on with the Miami Dolphins. Stecker took Denson's spot on the practice squad, but he has dreams of occupational advancement in the year 2000. Stecker wants to earn a full-time job on the Bucs' active roster, and he's got a good feel for what the job requires.

"You've got to realize that the running backs right now are set," said Stecker of the Bucs' depth chart, which features Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott rather prominently. "You really can't do anything about that. You just have to be ready when you get an opportunity, and that's what happens for a lot of guys that are deep down on the depth chart.

Guys get hurt, all of a sudden you have to step up and be the guy. That's how I look at it. I figure that I'm going to have an opportunity one day to run the ball and show what I can do, but right now my best bet to make the squad is to do it on special teams."

Stecker, in a way, has already shown what he could do this past spring. Not satisfied with the look they got at him during late-season practice last year, the Bucs sent Stecker over to the NFL Europe League and he responded by earning Offensive MVP honors while leading his Scottish Claymores to the league championship game. Stecker's numbers dwarfed those of the rest of the league's running backs, thanks in part to his versatility. He led the league in rushing and also led the Claymores in receptions.

That was impressive to the Buccaneers, but it didn't earn him an automatic bump over Dunn at tailback on the depth chart. What it did earn Stecker, perhaps, is a serious look in the preseason, a significant effort to acquaint him with the duties of a backup Buccaneer running back.

Last year, the Bucs' primary backup at tailback was Rabih Abdullah, who is also having a fine 2000 camp for the team. Abdullah carried the ball five times in 1999.

He also had 16 special teams tackles. Abdullah didn't return kickoffs for the Bucs last year, but he has worked extensively in that role during camp. Stecker is following the same blueprint. However, just as it was for Abdullah, much of this is new to the former Western Illinois standout.

"It's a different job," said Stecker of the special teams role he is trying to learn. "A lot of people excel at things when they start doing new things because it's new to them and they want to learn it and they want to do the best they can at it. Now, when I'm out there I'm just having fun. You see the guys out there before we run down, yelling and screaming and getting all hyped. You just have a different mentality. You go out there and let all your aggression out and I enjoy it."

Stecker played extensively on kick coverage units in Miami last Thursday, and he consistently found himself in the middle of the action. He collected two special teams tackles against the Dolphins, but to hear him tell it, that was only a job half done.

"I could have had four against Miami," said Stecker. "Again, I've never done it in a game, and it's just little things that matter and you really don't understand that. After watching the special teams film and having it pointed out, I think I can learn from mistakes right away. I know what to do next time and maybe I'll come out with four tackles. But I'm having a lot of fun and I think that's the biggest thing right now."

Still, it wasn't as if those two stops were his only contribution. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Bucs trailing 12-7 after Olindo Mare's fourth field goal, Stecker took a kickoff one yard deep in the Tampa Bay end zone and angled left, then towards the middle. He slipped several tackles before heading into a crowd near midfield. Somehow, he broke free from that crowd, sprinted towards the left sideline and ran the ball all the way to the Dolphins' 13 before being forced out of bounds. The Bucs scored a go-ahead touchdown two plays later.

"I ran it down there and would have liked to have had the kickoff return for a touchdown," said Stecker, who has averaged 39.7 yards on three returns this preseason. "It didn't happen, but they gave me an opportunity to punch it in, and I got it in the end zone."

Oh, yeah, did we forget to mention that? After rookie Ketric Sanford picked up 11 yards on a sweep, Stecker was handed the ball on a run off right tackle and he powered through the pile for a touchdown. He has had only nine carries in two preseason games, for 21 yards, not enough, he figures, to give an accurate account of his abilities.

"As far as running the ball, I'm the type of guy that, as I get into games, the more carries I get the more comfortable I get," said Stecker. "Right now, I'm getting a little carry here and there and trying to make the best of it.

"For a running back, once you're in the game for awhile you get in the rhythm. When you're in there just a little bit, you don't really have a chance to get in the rhythm. That's the time that you have to make the most of your opportunities. I'm trying to do the best I can. I think they know I can run and catch the ball from what I did over in Europe. I think they just want to see how well I can do on special teams."

And what's the verdict so far?

"Aaron Stecker has done a good job in a lot of different categories," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. Dungy had not been specifically asked about Stecker; rather he was asked to point out some good things from the Bucs' 15-13 loss in Miami.

When asked to be more specific about the first-year back, Dungy said: "The more versatile you can be and the different things you can do really help. Aaron's learned a lot of jobs in the last three weeks, and really learned them all well. He's got a good head on his shoulders, he has an instinct for the game and it's really good to see. He's doing well."

Stecker hopes that's the impression he's giving to his prospective employers.

"I think I'm getting better every week," he said. "The main thing is, I've been doing it on special teams, working on special teams. I haven't really done that before in college – run back punts or kickoffs. Each week, I'm getting more and more comfortable. I think I'll keep getting better on special teams."

There's no reason to doubt that proclamation. He already leads the team in both kickoff returns and kick-coverage tackles, quite a nice double-dip for a player new to special teams. I guess you could say his on-the-job training is going well.

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