In the four months since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Jeremy Zuttah in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, Head Coach Jon Gruden has found a variety of ways to praise the rookie offensive lineman. One of most telling: Gruden called Zuttah a "quick study" as the young man fought to learn three different positions at once during training camp.
That trait may be particularly relevant now, in the wake of starting right guard Davin Joseph's foot injury. Zuttah could be tabbed to replaceJoseph in the starting five; at the very least, he's going to see a greater share of snaps over the final two preseason games.
After practice on Wednesday, Gruden specifically did not anoint Zuttah as Joseph's replacement just yet. Still, he is clearly one of the first options the Bucs will consider to step in until their team captain is back on his feet.
"He's just shown us that he's a quick study and he's a guy that we think has the range to be an interior player, whether it be left guard, right guard or center," Gruden said of the 6-4, 303-pound Zuttah. "Obviously, there will be some growing pains. I'm not saying he's going to be the right guard. I'm just saying he's a candidate. But we do like our young offensive guard here from Rutgers and we'll leave it at that."
Zuttah showed a high level of versatility during his years at Rutgers, spending time at both guard and tackle during his 31-game career. During training camp, he drew rave reviews as he spent time learning the center position, as well as continuing to work at both guard spots.
But as he left the practice field Wednesday afternoon, Zuttah seemed unfazed by the media throng questioning him about the possibility of joining the starting lineup with Joseph on the sidelines. Considering Gruden has also described him as "unflappable," it came as little surprise that Zuttah took it all in stride — it was just another day at practice in his mind.
"[The coaches] haven't told me anything," Zuttah said. "They just told me when I came out to practice today to go to right guard, so that's what I'm going to do. Obviously when I came [to the Bucs] I was going to play everything, but some days it's more guard reps than center reps. It's whatever they tell me to do today."
Despite bouncing around three different positions along the offensive line early in his professional career, Zuttah said he feels he has a good grasp on the right guard spot, if that's the spot his opportunity comes at.
"I'm pretty comfortable," Zuttah said. "I played tackle last year, so everything is concentrating on getting better at positions. It's kind of new to me, but at the same time I've been doing it for a while anyway. So I'm pretty comfortable, I'm just trying to get better.
"It's definitely hard to learn, but any challenge you've just got to take it up. The more challenging it is, you've just got to put in more work."
In fact, Zuttah said the opportunity to focus on just one position could prove to be a blessing.
"I think it'll help me get comfortable at one position, just focusing on that one position every day," Zuttah said. "It'll be good for me, I think."
At least one of Zuttah's offensive line mates isn't worried about any sort of decline in production in Joseph's absence. Zuttah's fellow Jeremy on the line, right tackle Mr. Trueblood, expressed a high level of confidence in his young teammate.
"We're there to help him if he needs it, but I don't think he will," Trueblood said. "He's a pretty tough kid. He's a very quick study. He knows what he's doing already, better than I did after a year."
Could learning a trio of positions all at once prevent Zuttah from mastering any of them? Not necessarily. Trueblood said that Zuttah's work at center would actually benefit him, even while playing guard, because the responsibilities of that position demand a keen grasp on everything that goes on within the offense.
"I don't even know if he really needs that much guidance, to tell you the truth," Trueblood said. "Lucky for him, he's been playing center the whole camp, so he knows the offense. I think he's in a good situation."
Depending on Joseph's timeframe for returning from his injury, Zuttah could potentially become the latest young lineman to get a chance to prove his worth in the Bucs' front five as a rookie.
For instance, look at Zuttah's teammates along the line:
- Left tackle Donald Penn saw action in all 16 games in his first full NFL season last year, starting 12. * Left guard Arron Sears started all 16 games as a rookie last season, only the third offensive lineman to start all 16 games for the Bucs as a rookie since 1990. * Joseph has started 28 of the 29 games he has played in his first two years in the league, including all 16 in 2007. He would be 32-for-32 if not for a practice-field injury that cost him the first month of his rookie season. * Trueblood has started 29 of 31 games in which he's played in two years, also opening all 16 last year. * Even sixth-year veteran center Jeff Faine, a free agent addition to the group this offseason, knows what it's like to see action right away. Faine has started all 66 of his career games, including all nine of the contests he saw action in his rookie year in 2003. * In addition, fourth-year vet Dan Buenning, the other likely candidate to fill Joseph's shoes in the starting lineup, started all 16 games as a rookie in 2005 before injuries limited him to a reserve role for much of the next two seasons. Thus, Trueblood was asked, could he see Zuttah stepping in as a rookie guard — much like Sears did in 2007 — and contributing right away, if necessary?
"I hope so," Trueblood said. "He's working his tail off, so I think he's doing everything possible to make that happen."
With so many young linemen being called upon to start in recent years, Gruden made it a point to say that the Bucs draft players with just that notion in mind.
"We don't want guys to just hang around here with just the mindset they're going to be second-string forever," Gruden said. "This is the NFL and you've got to be ready to play, and he'll get his opportunity, that's for sure."
For Zuttah, that opportunity may very well be coming sooner rather than later. Zuttah admitted that he is taking things one day at a time at this point, and that he still has much to learn, but he couldn't hide how thrilled he was about the opportunity that may have presented itself.
"It's definitely exciting," Zuttah said. "Coach just says you've got to be ready for your chance. You never know when it's going to come, and if you're not ready when it comes, it may never come again.
"I'm ready to start tomorrow."