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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Putting Up a Front

Veteran depth, wide-open jobs and a run of unusual ailments have turned the battle for starting jobs on the offensive line into one of the most intriguing stories of camp


Training camp will give newcomer Todd Steussie get to know the fans, and more importantly, his offensive line mates

Two things stood out about Derrick Deese when he arrived at training camp on Friday afternoon and stood outside the team hotel in the bright Florida sun: His canary-yellow t-shirt and his shaved head, recently shorn of a crown of cornrows.

Fellow offensive lineman Todd Steussie certainly had no problem picking Deese out of a crowd, thanks to those reflectors. Steussie arrived just after Deese, and when he caught a glimpse of his teammate's gleaming scalp, he made sure to share his opinion of the new 'hairstyle.' They are two players who have been in the league since the early '90s, carving out parallel Pro Bowl careers on separate teams, but Deese and Steussie have quickly developed an easy rapport as new members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That's a good sign for the Buccaneers. Training camp is supposed to be a time for the team, and individual units within the team, to draw close together, to bond, to learn how to play together. Nowhere is that more important than on the offensive line, where the Bucs responded to struggles in 2003 by signing four veteran free agents, including Deese and Steussie.

"Camp gives guys a chance to hang out, to spend some quality time together and get to know each other," said Deese, who played his first 12 NFL seasons in San Francisco. "It's really important that the offensive line gets together as quickly as possible. The fact that we're all veterans who have been in the league five years, or 10 years, or 12 years will make it a little bit easier. We all know what to expect."

Actually, it's getting to the point where the Bucs don't know what to expect from their group of offensive linemen. It has become exceedingly clear that the team's decision to dramatically increase the veteran depth on the O-line is going to prove to be much more than a luxury.

It started with Cosey Coleman, the returning guard who suffered an intestinal issue and had to have surgery, leading to a significant weight loss that had Coleman looking like an undersized tight end. Then, guard Matt O'Dwyer, one of the team's new OL signees, ripped a pectoral muscle while getting in an extra workout on the weights before camp. O'Dwyer was placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list on Friday. Finally, fourth-year tackle Kenyatta Walker had to be excused from the first few days of camp due to a stomach illness.

Deese and Steussie were all smiles on Friday. Maybe they were just happy to have avoided falling in a pit or being struck by lightning.

Despite the run of curious health issues, the Bucs still head into camp with that intriguing veteran depth up front, plus a handful of promising rookies, such as second-year men Sean Mahan and Austin King and rookie Jeb Terry. Walker is supposed to be back in action on Monday and Coleman will practice with the rest of his teammates on Saturday morning. On Friday, Gruden praised Coleman for his dedicated work to return to form after his ailment. Only O'Dwyer appears to be in for a long absence.

Still, even before O'Dwyer's injury, Gruden wasn't ready to concede that the starting jobs up front had been assigned.

"A lot of people have already said that we've got four new starters," said Gruden. "We haven't decided anything on this line other than we're going to do everything we can to do better. We thought Matt could come in here and be a starter or a versatile backup and a veteran guy who has some thump and some size, which we thought we needed."

At the team's mini-camp in late June, Deese and Steussie started at the tackle spots while O'Dwyer and Matt Stinchcomb lined up at guard and John Wade held onto his first-team job at center. At the time, that appeared like an indication of what the starting line would be, but Gruden says the competition is only just beginning.

"We want to determine the reality of who's playing where on this football team," he said. "Although there is speculation who the starters are…Kenyatta Walker, we want to see him come in here and compete. We want to see Cosey Coleman come in here and compete with Kerry Jenkins and see if Stinchcomb and Deese and Steussie, a lot of these veteran guys, can help us pick it up a notch in an area we need to improve."

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