WR Maurice Stovall stays behind after most practices to work on his hands and his route-running
It's becoming a familiar scene at Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp this year. Practice ends, the players – drenched in sweat and thoroughly spent – depart in a mass exodus to the locker room and the waiting shuttle buses, looking for a few hours of R&R before the next scheduled session. One man, the same man each time, is among the last to leave.
At 6-5, 220 pounds, rookie wide receiver and third-round pick Maurice Stovall is hard to miss. With that frame, he's already –almost literally – head and shoulders above most of his teammates, but he's working extra hard to ensure he's just as conspicuous for his skills as a wide receiver in the National Football League.
So after most practices, Stovall remains on the field, lingering behind to catch extra passes and work on his route-running. Couple that with the fact that he participates in the last period of each practice (a special teams session of which many players are not a part), and Stovall is among the last of the Buccaneers to walk off the field.
"I'm just working on my hands, catching the ball more, getting used to the NFL," Stovall said, explaining his post-practice routine. "You just can never do too much. I'm just trying to get better as a football player.
"Training camp is a great experience. It's a challenge, both mentally and physically. You learn how to take care of your body differently than at the college level. You're playing with grown men, and they're just as fast, may even be faster, just as strong, even stronger. So I'm just trying to stay sharp mentally and block the heat out at the same time."
It's a mature approach for the 21-year-old receiver, who displayed much of the same maturity during his breakout senior year at Notre Dame. After three somewhat average season, Stovall exploded offensively in 2005, thriving in new Head Coach Charlie Weis' system. Starting all 12 games last year, Stovall caught 69 balls for 1,149 yards and 11 TDs and had a record-breaking day against BYU with 14 catches for 207 yards and four touchdowns. Fueled by his monster senior season, he finished his Notre Dame career third in school history for touchdown receptions in a career (18), fourth in receiving yards (2,195) and fourth in career receptions (130).
"I felt as though it was a little of everything," Stovall said, commenting on his emergence that year. "It was maturity. It was changing coaching and changing our system. It was everyone on the team being a leader and being held accountable for what they do. It was everyone just stepping up, maturing and coming together as a team and executing."
As impressive as his numbers were, Stovall would be the first to say that they don't count for anything now. These days, he's just another rookie in an NFL training camp determined to prove to his team that he belongs at this level. On a day-to-day basis, the thought that he's now on an official NFL roster doesn't even phase him.
"I think you can't really get caught up in all that," Stovall said. "If you do that, then you're not really focused. It's a blessing being in the NFL and even more of a blessing being here in Tampa Bay. I'm more than happy that these guys drafted me, but at the same time I have to focus and realize what I'm here to do. A lot of people say, 'Wow you're in the NFL, you've made it.' Well, no – I haven't made it yet because I haven't done anything. I have to prove myself to the guys on the team, to these coaches and to the league. That's what I'm here to do."
He's well aware that process starts at training camp, and despite being one of the last draft picks signed, Stovall's deal got done and he reported to camp on time.
"That was very important to me," he said. "For one, I wanted to be here so I wouldn't be behind, physically but also mentally – I didn't want to be behind in the playbook. I also wanted to be here with my teammates and try to prove to them as quickly as possible that I belong on this team and that I can hang with these guys and help them win a Super Bowl."
For Stovall, that means contributing in all forms – from special teams to possibly playing tight end. Earlier in camp, Head Coach Jon Gruden experimented with the notion of allowing the big-bodied receiver to work inside at the position.
"We put him over there in a three-point stance and taught him some basic fundamentals of a couple plays," said Gruden. "He is a big guy who has a tenacity about him. That's what you do as a coach. You come with an idea or two. This one here in a couple of weeks, a couple months, a couple years, it might pay dividends, I don't know."
It's just another possible fold in Gruden's innovative offensive game plan. To say his playbook is complex is to say the ocean is deep, and Stovall agrees.
"It's a lot of studying – like being prepared for a test or exam," he says. "You have to study and cram each night and be ready to pass the test the next day. My test everyday is practice, being consistent with knowing what I have to do on each play, trying not to make rookie mistakes, as far as knowing where to line up and where to shift my routes I have to run and [knowing] the depth. It's a lot of things going on, and it's the same thing on special teams. Not only do you have to learn offense, but you have to know what's going on with special teams. It's a lot going on, but I'm sure these guys wouldn't have drafted me if they didn't think I couldn't handle it."
Stovall's goal is clear: he wants to become an all-around receiver – one who blocks as well as catches, runs sharp routes, runs after the catch and gets up-field to put himself in position to make the big play. One with the clutch ability of Jerry Rice, the physical prowess of Terrell Owens and the grace of Randy Moss. Those are the men Stovall has watched and admired, and those are the men with whom he hopes his name is mentioned in future discussions.
For now though, he focuses on the present, catching one ball after another and working on his techniques – not just at practice but during a period not noted on any schedule, a period he reserves for himself, a period he knows is vital for becoming the receiver he knows he can be.