The youth and dedication of the current Bucs squad makes this team an enjoyable one for Jon Gruden to coach
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just began the last mini-camp they will ever hold at One Buccaneer Place, their oft-reconfigured home of the last 30 years. After the upcoming training camp in Central Florida, the Bucs will move into their new, state-of-the-art headquarters near Raymond James Stadium.
And not a moment too soon.
Rarely are the limited spaces of One Buc Place more cramped than during the final mini-camp of the offseason, when the roster is bloated to maximum size. In the same locker room the team has used since 1976, a double-sided row of extra lockers runs down the middle of the room, necessary to accommodate an incredible 97 players.
Of course, that same inflated number is a boon on the practice fields behind One Buccaneer Place, as the team can run a fast-paced two hours worth of drills and constantly shuttle in fresh units. On Tuesday morning, the Bucs opened their four practice mini-camp with an enthusiastic and productive first workout.
There were plays that failed, of course, a few balls dropped and an occasional assignment forgotten, but the dedication shown by this young team over the course of a 14-week offseason program was obvious again as mini-camp opened. Head Coach Jon Gruden was encouraged.
"We've had an unbelievable turnout, almost 100 percent every day," he said, referring to the mostly voluntary work of the last three months. "We've had 85-90 players here. These guys have worked extremely hard to welcome the newcomers here, teach them how we practice and what we're after in terms of performance. That's the biggest change. We're even more unified at this time than we [have been] since I've been here."
Of course, Tuesday's session was the first mandatory, whole-squad practice of the entire offseason, so near-perfect attendance was expected. There are 100 players on the Bucs' roster at the moment, technically, though wide receiver Jonathan Carter is currently rehabbing an NFL Europe injury at an NFLEL facility in Alabama.
Of the remaining 99 players, only defensive tackle Anthony Bryant and guard Toniu Fonoti were not at One Buc Place on Tuesday. Gruden said that Bryant was excused due to an illness in the family while Fonoti's absence was, at that point, unexplained. Quarterback Luke McCown, who will undergo surgery for an injured knee later this week, did not practice, but everybody else on the roster participated in at least some of the action.
And practice was relatively sharp, resembling an actual training camp practice much more than an early-spring walk-through. As was the plan, the Bucs laid the foundation for a quick start to camp by working very hard over the last 14 weeks, and the results were obvious on Tuesday.
"I've been so proud of them," said Gruden. "We're going to play, we're going to work, we're going to be ready to roll. Whether or not we coach good enough, that remains to be seen, but this football team will be in the upper level of teams in this league in terms of work ethic. They work hard, they love football, they like to compete and they show a healthy respect for each other. It's fun to come to work with these guys."
The Bucs actually had a two-a-day scheduled for Tuesday, but the afternoon practice was cut in half by ominous clouds and a bank of lightning close to the field. Gruden kept the team on the facility's porch for a few minutes waiting to see if the lightning would vacate the area, but eventually shut it down. With one practice each on Wednesday and Thursday and the strong start on Tuesday morning, the team should get in an adequate amount of work.
"This mini-camp practice today was like a game," said Gruden. "The coaches are off the field, we're moving the ball, we're substituting, we're playing it like it is a game. Everybody had three six-play drives. We had a full blitz period, a 12 to 15-play blitz period, a half-line blitz period. We're much more advanced in terms of what we're trying to get done, instead of just lining up and having a walk-through and teaching guys what to do. Now they're in a position where they're going to slot themselves in terms of who gets how many reps. We're evaluating everything. It's been exciting yet it's been very challenging."