Defensive linemen sometimes turn their drills into competitions against each other
The "get-off" drill, which is run pretty much every day by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive linemen, is just about the simplest exercise performed by any group during individual-position periods of practice. It's an "indie" staple: The big men line up four across, put their hands on the ground and, at the bark of their coach, try to spring out of their three-point stances and run forward five yards as quickly as possible.
The purpose of the drill is right there in its name. It is meant to sharpen the players' ability to react to the snap, to get that split-second advantage over their (hopefully) slower-moving opponent on the offensive line. The D-Line usually spends just a few minutes on the exercise, then moves on to something a little more involved.
But Head Coach Raheem Morris saw something in that quick little drill on Thursday that told him something important about the 2009 Buccaneers. For the first time, his Buccaneers.
What he saw was veteran defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson and rookie lineman Kyle Moore repeatedly lining up in the same group of four and turning each "get-off" into a competition. Wilkerson and Moore had a good time with their personal battle, frequently arguing the winner of a rep, but they weren't just messing around. Wilkerson was trying to drive his younger teammate to a higher level; Moore was trying to emulate the non-stop motor of his established fellow lineman.
"I see him pushing him every day," said Morris of Wilkerson's effect on Moore. "They're down there doing a simple get-off drill and they're racing. He's pulling the rookie, telling him, 'I'm kicking your butt.' And the rookie's trying to get there and he's claiming he won one, and he didn't, and Jimmy's letting him know about it."
On February 25, the day the Buccaneers released linebacker Derrick Brooks and four other veteran players, new General Manager Mark Dominik said this: "I'm not a big fan of the 'rebuilding' word, but in a way we did today, in a direction that we want to head."
Dominik didn't bring up rebuilding and he didn't accept it as a proper description of the team's plans, but he did understand the nuances of the word. The Buccaneers don't intend to go into a nonaggressive, noncompetitive mode for a few years, trading away victories for player development. The goal is still to win, this year and the next. But it would also be disingenuous to deny that the roster has gotten significantly younger and that there will be quite a few new starters in 2009. The Bucs want to establish a long-term winner with their potential young stars, and they want to give veterans who have shown they can produce a greater opportunity to do so.
And that's why Wilkerson and Moore driving each other is such a welcome sight for Morris and Dominik and the rest of the team.
With long-time veteran end Kevin Carter not re-signed, Wilkerson is the front-runner for the starting job at left defensive end. Playing a valuable sub role in 2008 that included work at both end and tackle, Wilkerson posted five sacks in his first Buccaneer campaign, four more than he had in five years combined at Kansas City. Moore, a fourth-round draft pick, flew under the radar despite leading USC's star-studded defense in sacks last fall.
There is no guarantee that either player will deliver on that promise in 2009, but the chances go up when they are driving each other to maximum effort. Wilkerson and Moore could be fighting for the same starting job, but they're making the whole team better with their competitive approach.
"When you've got guys on your team like that, that's exactly what you want," said Morris. "Those are the kinds of guys you want around your young guys, and those are the kinds of young guys you want chasing the big guys. I love it."
The Buccaneers were treated to an overcast, slightly cooler morning on Thursday, making it a bit easier to finish up another taxing week of organized team activity (OTA) practices. As repetitive as it is to mention, the Buccaneers really have established a fast practice-field tempo this spring and summer, thanks to the all-out attitude of players like Wilkinson and Moore. Obviously, there is going to be an ebb and flow in that daily energy level, but Morris has rarely been displeased with the amount of investment he's seen from his players.
"These guys, there's nothing fake out here," he said. "They're an emotional bunch. Some practices there's a lot of smack talk; some practices there's a lot of high energy and enthusiasm; some practices, the defense may be a little bit more enthusiastic than the offense; some practices the offense may be a little bit more enthusiastic than the defense. I'm starting to step back and let them become their own personality. I'm liking what they're doing. I'm starting to see people develop."
Of course, all of this is supposed to be building towards training camp, which is always a grueling experience, emotionally and physically, due to its long string of two-a-days in the oppressive Florida heat. Morris has to manage emotions, the players' and his own, but he can't help but be excited by the progress his team is making.
"I'm not going to peak too early," he said Thursday. "I don't want to go too high on the emotional roller coaster. But seeing these guys come together right now has really got me jacked up. The plans for the future, seeing everything come together, seeing guys come in here and understand situational football, seeing guys start to get a clue is what I'm jacked up about."
A Day in His Honor
Friday has been named "Raheem Morris Day" in Irvington, New Jersey. That wouldn't be much fun if there were no Raheem Morris around to enjoy the honor.
That's why the Buccaneers' head coach was headed to the airport on Thursday, catching a flight north back to his hometown. His parents still calls Irvington home, so it's also a perfect opportunity for Morris to reconnect with his family before starting up another round of OTAs in Tampa next week.
"I don't know if I've got any more friends in Irvington…no, I'm just joking," he said. "I'm really fired up to get home and see the family and see some of my friends that I haven't seen in awhile. That will be a great day."
Morris, who was elevated to head coach by the Buccaneers on January 17, is committed to remaining humble in his new position. That's why he sees "Raheem Morris Day" as more of an opportunity to thank others than to be feted himself.
"There are a lot of people in Irvington who helped me get to where I am now and those guys deserve some kudos, too," he said. "When I get a chance to go home and see those guys and be around those guys, it's awesome."