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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Rookie John Howell runs with the first-team defense as starting free safety Dexter Jackson nurses a hip injury


Rookie safety John Howell earned a spot on the 53-man roster with an impressive preseason

During the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2001 Training Camp, rookie safety John Howell composed a diary for readers, sharing his first NFL experiences as they occurred. Two weeks after camp broke, the Buccaneers cut their training camp roster from over 80 players to the final limit of 53. Howell, the team's fourth-round pick out of Colorado State, made the team and is expected to be a significant contributor on special teams. At the moment, however, he is filling an even larger role.

In 1999, safety Dexter Jackson, a fourth-round draft pick out of Florida State, arrived in Tampa and immediately took a seat behind Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting free safety Damien Robinson. Jackson became a special teams force, but with Robinson starting all 32 games over the next two seasons, the former Seminole had to wait for the veteran's departure this offseason to get his shot with the first team.

Two years later, safety John Howell, a fourth-rounder from Colorado State, arrives in Tampa just as Jackson is moving into that starter's spot. Similarly, Howell is expected to make his early contribution on special teams as the more experienced Jackson handles the bulk of the free safety duties.

Yet there was Howell on Wednesday, two weeks into the start of the 2001 season, running with Pro Bowlers John Lynch and Donnie Abraham in the secondary. Was Howell's wait to be much shorter than Jackson's?

Most likely, no. Jackson has done nothing to lose his new spot with the starting unit, intercepting two passes in a preseason game at Cleveland (one was called back by penalty) and picking off Dallas QB Quincy Carter in Jackson's first regular season start. The third-year veteran has done something to limit his current practice time, however, sustaining a hip flexor strain that has him on the sideline during the Bucs' bye-week activities.

That put Howell on the front line, with a game against the high-octane Minnesota Vikings looming. While the team has two weeks to prepare for its division rivals, and Jackson thus has a large chunk of time to overcome his injury, Howell believes he is ready if the team needs him to fill a larger role in Minnesota.

"Definitely," said Howell. "I think if you're not ready by this time, something's wrong.

"The thing about being in the backup role is, if something happens and the guy in front of you goes down, you've got to step up. The defense can't drop off one bit. You've got to be just as good or better than the guy in front of you."

That quote very easily could have come from the mouth of Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy, as it his typical response to the loss of a player. While roster depth has become increasingly hard to fashion in the salary cap era, Dungy and General Manager Rich McKay have worked hard to insulate the team from a significant injury here or there.

As such, training camp battles become intense for every position, not just the starting 22. Tampa Bay coaches had quite a bit of safety depth to sort through in training camp this summer, with starters Lynch and Jackson backed up by improving second-year player David Gibson, quietly effective veteran Eric Vance and two new draftees in Howell and seventh-rounder Than Merrill.

The Bucs eventually chose to keep five safeties, one more than last year, as Gibson, Howell and Vance all made the squad. While Howell appeared to be drawing very good reviews throughout July and August, he never felt certain that a spot on the 53-man roster was waiting for him. As the Bucs made their cuts on August 27 and September 2, Howell couldn't escape a few pangs of nervousness.

"It was definitely a different situation for me," he said. "I didn't feel like I was a shoo-in by any means. I think when it gets to that point, you remember every single bad play you made ever since you stepped foot in this place. You evaluate every single play you had in training camp, and you're trying to figure out what the coaches think of you. You're just hoping you don't get that phone call the next morning, and fortunately I didn't. You feel confident, but still, you never take anything for granted in this business because you never know what's going to happen."

Howell also admits to a bout of nerves before the Bucs took on Dallas on September 9, his first regular season game as a professional. Though the anxiety passed when he hit the field, as expected, Howell still could feel the magnitude of the NFL stage.

"I thought the first game of preseason was something and I thought I had all the butterflies out of the way," he said. "But when I ran out on the field in Dallas, I could just tell the change of atmosphere from preseason to the regular season. The intensity level is so much higher. I could tell that guys were flying around and it was a lot faster than in the preseason. The nerves were definitely there."

On the turf at venerable Texas Stadium, on the practice field surrounded by household names, perhaps in the starting lineup in his second pro game – Howell is finding himself in situations that, when viewed from the perspective of a man less than a year removed from college football, seem daunting. When the whistle blows, however, football instincts take over.

"It's all just reading your keys, alignments, assignments – everything that we've learned since I got here in camp," said Howell. "The main thing is that I can't get out there and get so nervous that I lose my head and forget my fundamentals of football. I've just got to relax and do what I know how to do, and that will take me to the football every time."

In Dallas, Howell played 10 special teams snaps and was generally satisfied with his own effort. While the flow of the plays never brought the action too close to him, he believes he did his job correctly on most of the snaps. Still, he knows he wasn't much of a factor in that first game. That could change in a hurry if Jackson is not quick enough to heal.

"I've been practicing with the ones (recently)," he said. "You get out there and you're looking around in the huddle and it's different faces. These are Pro Bowl guys, guys you've been looking up to and watching film on. If you don't realize that you've got to step it up at that point, you've got to have a mental check. That's what the NFL is all about – stepping up when the guy in front of you goes down."

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