LB Ryan Nece was limited at practice after a knee scope, but the Bucs have greatly improved their linebacker depth
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' completed another step in their pre-training camp preparations on Thursday. Virtually the entire roster, bursting to over 80 players, was on hand for three days of 'organized team activity' (OTA) days, and that high level of participation ensured a positive outcome.
"They went well," said Head Coach Jon Gruden of the organized workouts of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. "We threw a lot at them, situationally. The officials were out here trying to magnify the penalties, trying to eliminate them. We worked hard on the nickel blitz, the base blitz, just different aspects of our football. I was really very, very pleased to be honest with you."
The team will be back together next week for another trio of OTA days, and five more such workouts in the middle of June. The Bucs' only mandatory mini-camp of the offseason will follow on June 22-24, the end of which will also signal the end of the entire offseason training program. The following weeks are free time until the beginning of training camp.
"We moved the (mandatory camp) back because a lot of the rookie draft choices can't get here until the middle of May, when their classes graduate," said Gruden. "If you have your days too soon, a lot of your rookies won't be able to participate. So we moved them back and used the time to teach our new veteran players. The execution is getting better each day because of that, I think. We've got eight or nine days left and a mandatory mini-camp, and we'll close out the offseason and get ready for what I think is going to be an interesting camp."
The Bucs' bloated camp roster made it easier to overcome the absence of several players due to injury, and the limited status of others. Running back Charlie Garner and linebacker Ian Gold are being eased into full participation, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius is still working on his return from a knee injury and tackle Derrick Deese, linebacker Ryan Nece and guard Cosey Coleman recently had surgeries of varying severity. All are expected to be full-go by training camp, but some should get into the mix even sooner.
"Hopefully, we'll get a couple guys in here next week, guys like Derrick Deese, and see a little bit more out of Charlie Garner," said Gruden. "Although he took reps every day, we'll increase his workload as time moves on."
Ian Gold, whose post-draft signing was one of the Bucs' biggest offseason coups, was on hand for the week's series of OTA days but was not cleared to participate during the full-team sessions of the three workouts. Gold, who is in the final stages of his rehabilitation from knee surgery last fall, did join the other linebackers during individual-position drills but the Bucs are keeping the reins on him for a short while longer.
"He looks pretty good," said Gruden. "We didn't turn him loose. He took part in the individual stuff but he's not been given a 100 percent green light. But he's very close. And he's fast. It's just a matter of cutting violently and doing those kinds of things. But he's on the verge of being ready to go."
In the meantime, with both Gold and Nece limited, a familiar face is filling the void at strongside linebacker.
Ninth-year veteran Jeff Gooch ran with the first team alongside Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles and was impressive in the early days of his return to Tampa. Originally an undrafted free agent with the Buccaneers in 1996, Gooch spent six years in Florida before signing as a free agent with the Detroit Lions in 2002. A special teams ace throughout his six years in Tampa (and for two seasons as a Lion, for good measure), Gooch was also the Bucs' starting strongside linebacker in 1998. Quarles supplanted Gooch in the lineup in 1999, but has since moved to middle linebacker, a position at which he earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2002.
When Gooch re-signed with Tampa Bay in March, it was hailed as a boon to the special teams, but it appears as if he also gives the team another valuable option on defense.
"I'll tell you the guy who's really made a lot of plays out here is Gooch," Gruden gushed. "You don't realize how good of a linebacker this guy is. He's a good linebacker. I wish we'd never let him go. It's a good thing…at least we're trying to get some of these guys back. He's a good player, man. He made a lot of plays out here. He's a captain for us right now, he's a leader on the special teams and while Ryan Nece is getting his knee ready to go this guy's made a ton of plays out here."
In his one season as a starter for the Buccaneers, Gooch recorded 72 tackles, four forced fumbles and a sack. He also averaged just over 14 special teams tackles per season in his six years in Tampa.
Watch for Lightning
Gruden said he wasn't surprised to see cornerback Ronde Barber pop up during Game Five of the Tampa Bay Lightning's conference finals series with the Philadelphia Flyers. Several Buc players, in fact, have been drawn into the pucks excitement and have attended the Lightning's home playoff games.
After a Game Six overtime loss, there will be one more game in Tampa in the series. Don't expect to see Gruden at the rink, however. He's more likely to catch the action on his television set.
"I like to watch the games in my house," he said. "I get a little excited. (Game five) was an unbelievable game. Their precision, man, their passing is so good. They always appear to be on the verge of scoring. They get back so quick."
The Lightning and Flyers will decide the conference finals on Saturday. The winner will play the Calgary Flames for the Stanley Cup.