Duquesne WR Bruce Hocker is looking to earn a more permanent roster spot, so that he can work on becoming comfortable in the Bucs' offense
If there is a class of football that is beyond his skills, a level of the game which just isn't meant for him, Bruce Hocker hasn't seen it yet.
This is a discovery – or non-discovery – Hocker is making bit by bit. At the moment, he is running routes and catching passes on the practice fields behind One Buccaneer Place, showing his skills during a three-day rookie mini-camp run by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
There are 54 players in the camp, 38 of whom are in for the weekend on tryout contracts and are thus not guaranteed a chance to come back after Sunday. Hocker is one of those 38. He is a wide receiver looking for a roster spot with a team that still has much to figure out about its pass-catching corps, competing along the likes of USF's Amari Jackson and Utah's Derrick Richards.
Unlike Jackson and Richards, Hocker played at a I-AA school and thus it is reasonable to wonder if his outstanding statistics – 162 catches for 2,595 yards and 33 touchdowns in his career at Duquesne – are partly the product of lesser competition. Hocker, however, is confident that he is skilled enough to play in the NFL, and he has yet to see anything to disabuse him of that notion.
"I haven't hit a level of competition yet where I've thought, 'I don't belong here,'" said the Upper Marlboro, Maryland native after Saturday's mini-camp practice. "And I don't feel that way here. Like I said, the only thing right now is basically learning this offense. I'm sure as soon as I get this offense down, my confidence will skyrocket and I'll be able to run around without thinking."
Of course, for Hocker to get enough time to really absorb the offense – the way fellow rookie and second-round draft choice Dexter Jackson will over the next four months – he'll have to first turn this weekend invite into a spot on the offseason/training camp roster. That is the position that all of the 38 tryout players are in, trying to impress in a short period of time, trying to put some good work on videotape, so that the Bucs or another NFL team will come calling, sooner or later.
Some of the tryout players come with built-in interest, a hook that at least drives the media attention in their direction. There are the local players, like Jackson and his two USF teammates, offensive linemen Jared Carnes and Walter Walker. There is one-time top prospect Tommy Blake trying to put his game back together. There's the Ivy League guy, Yale fullback Langston Johnson.
And there are a whole lot of young men who will come in and out of town without drawing much attention. They will get equal treatment from the Bucs' coaches and scouts, though, especially in the days of film study that will follow this weekend's camp. The Bucs have run this sort of rookie mini-camp for four years now, and it has always produced at least a couple signings to the offseason roster.
Head Coach Jon Gruden was responding to a question about Amarri Jackson when he discussed what it would take for a receiver to stand out and potentially earn a call-back, but it applies to Hocker, Richards and the rest, too.
"Obviously we're looking for a young guy that can make plays, number one," said Gruden. "Number two, a guy that has some versatility to help us on special teams and be a guy that can play split end or flanker, a guy that can learn a couple positions. That's what most guys, backups or young guys, have to do. Along the way, we'd like to see a guy that can reach up, grab the ball and make some plays.
"We've got to establish ourselves at that position and it's wide open right now, to be honest with you. Joey Galloway obviously is the starter at split end but we've got a lot of competition everywhere else."
Hocker, who has excellent size at a chiseled 6-4 and 205 pounds, would like to remain a part of that competition. He simply wants a chance to prove himself once again.
Academic issues derailed his first shot at playing for a big-time college program, and he headed to Duquesne after his mother insisted that he work on a degree. The program has added scholarships since he first arrived, but at the time he went to the private Catholic university in Pittsburgh he was there first and foremost to study. Hocker joined the football team, however, and quickly became one of the Dukes' best players.
By 2006, he was the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference co-Offensive Player of the Year, among the many awards he won during his four years at the school. After missing most of the 2005 season with a shoulder injury, he followed with 61 catches in 2006 and 54 in 2007. Despite missing most of one of his four seasons, Hocker is still the all-time receptions leader for Duquesne.
Last winter, he was also the first Duquesne player ever invited to play in the Hula Bowl. As one of only twelve non-Football Bowl Subdivision players at the all-star game, he again realized that he was not in over his head. These gradual realizations have built his self-assurance along the way.
"I'm very confident, very confident," said Hocker. "As the level of talent goes up and excels, I excel with it. I played in the Hula Bowl, so I know I can play with these guys."
Hocker can also look to another Duquesne product to know that the trip is possible. Detroit cornerback Leigh Bodden, who also hails from the same area in Maryland as Hocker, used his Dukes career to propel him to the NFL. Bodden was an undrafted free agent in 2003, but he developed into a good enough player that he was a key to a pre-draft deal that brought defensive tackle Shaun Rogers to Cleveland.
Hocker had hoped that, unlike Bodden, he would hear his name called on draft day. There was some speculation that he would slip into the lower rounds, but instead he found himself looking for work on Monday. The Bucs gave him an opportunity, and the events of draft weekend gave him a boost to take advantage of it.
"It was definitely disappointing [not to be drafted]," Hocker admits. "I was disappointed, but it's also something to work for. It's added fuel to the fire, more motivation for me to get there, to make it and reach my goal."
Bodden never did run into a level of competition where he didn't belong. Hocker believes the same will be true for him. He's spoken with Bodden several times since the end of the 2007 season, and the established NFL player told him what to expect, and how to handle it.
"He told me just to stay focused," said Hocker. "There are going to be a lot of bumps but continue to stay focused, work hard and do everything you can do. Leave it all on the field, and that way whenever the decision is made you won't be disappointed because you gave it your all."
That's the approach all of the 38 tryout players are taking this weekend. For some, it could be the start to a long career in the NFL.