Even the Bucs' young running backs, like rookie Ketric Sanford, realize the importance of being versatile in the team's offense
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new offensive attack under coordinator Les Steckel is primary a one-back system. The Buccaneers' outstanding run production over the past three years has been very much a two-back affair, as FB Mike Alstott and RB Warrick Dunn have been almost equally featured.
Does that mean someone is going to get squeezed out? Hardly.
On the contrary, Steckel's varied attack, which makes significant use of the H-back position and also involves the traditional fullback, hopes to provide even more opportunities for Alstott, Dunn and the rest of the Bucs' backfield stable. That's good news for the eight running backs currently on the team's roster, particularly for those who find a way to be versatile.
Bucs Running Backs Coach Tony Nathan believes in the concept of using his charges in a variety of roles. "You keep people interested that way," he said. "You keep them involved in things. These days, the more you can do, the better off you are. You're not just limited to only being a runner or only being a pass receiver. Once you get them involved, you see where the potential is to play other spots."
Nathan has seen a lot from these eight – Alstott and Dunn plus tailbacks Rabih Abdullah, Jerry Ellison, Ketric Sanford and Aaron Stecker and fullbacks Jim Kitts and Kevin McLeod – and has been pleased with their efforts so far.
"I've been impressed with what they've done," said Nathan. "When we started to present things to them, it was almost as if we said, 'Let's throw it on the wall and see what sticks with them.' We gave them the book of what we were going to do and let them know what was going in (to the offense), and I was very impressed when they came back and most of them knew what we were doing. We were all learning this together, a whole different scheme, and I was very impressed with how well they picked it up.
"As a group, I like the people that I have here. They work hard and that's all I can ask of them. They've done very well."
To continue our series of pre-camp interviews with the team's position coaches, Buccaneers.com sat down with Nathan on Tuesday. Nathan, an extremely productive running back in his own day in the NFL (Miami Dolphins, 1979-87), thinks the new offense will expose the strengths of his runners, each of which he discussed on the eve of training camp 2000. Nathan's thoughts, in his own words, follow.
Rabih Abdullah: "He had a pretty good minicamp and has done well during the offseason. I think his major thing is how well he does on special teams. That will be a big deciding factor for him. We're hoping that he can do real well there, improve on what he's done the last two years.
"Normally, the backup (running back) returns the ball, but Rabih doesn't return. So, hopefully, he can play one of the 'up-back' spots so he can block somebody.
"He looks outstanding running the ball. If he wasn't here, I think he could actually start for somebody else. I really do believe that."
Mike Alstott: "This year, it's going to be a new look for Mike because we're going with a one-back set and Warrick is going to be that back for the most part. Mike's going to play the H-back. It's a new position for him, and he's going to do a lot of moving around. He might have to block a little bit more on the corners. Mentally, he's done a good job of picking things up, doing the things we've asked of him and running the routes. He's going to do a lot more of that, running pass routes. I think it's something that he's going to get excited about and do real well at. I was talking to him today, and he's very much looking forward to it.
"He's going to get his carries. You've got to put the ball in his hands. We're just trying to figure out how to get the ball into Warrick's hands, too, and get that big play a lot more."
Warrick Dunn: "When he's here, he's done very well. He works hard. He likes to go off and do his own things in the offseason, which I can understand because they're here for a long time. He does some of his own workout programs, but when he comes back, he's ready to go.
"He picked up things very well when he came into the minicamps and the June workouts, and it's going to be very interesting to see him get the ball in his hands more than he has in the past.
"This offense is a very good fit for him. You can do different things with him and Mike and they can become interchangeable. It's going to be very interesting to see how people react to what we do with the two of them."
Jerry Ellison: "We were glad to be able to get Jerry back, mainly because of his special teams play when he was here before. He's a nice veteran-type guy to have in the fold just in case something goes wrong elsewhere. When he was here before, he played both fullback and tailback. This year, it's going to be simply the R-back, so it's going to be interesting to see how well he does, special teams-wise. He did pick things up really well in the minicamp, so he's had a good offseason, too."
Jim Kitts: "He's in interesting situation here, because right now we have him at fullback but he looks pretty decent at the H-back. He's going to get his opportunities there, also, so it's going to be interesting to see what he does when we put the pads on. He catches the ball well and runs pretty good once he gets his hands on it. He did a good job of picking up things and doing what we asked of him, but it's still going to come down to what you do when you put the pads on."
Kevin McLeod: "Kevin did real well (in the offseason). He picked up the things we wanted him to do and volunteered to do some other things that we weren't thinking about doing with him. He's volunteered to try to play the H-back or even, if he had to, play tight end and put his hand on the ground. That's what he did in school for a little while. So we're exploring those situations with him, and he's been working hard and looking good at what we've asked him to do. And he's surprised us with the little things we didn't ask him to do.
"So, like I said, it's going to be interesting when these guys put the pads on and we get back in training camp and see who wants to play.
"We needed somebody to put in front of Mike when we wanted to put Mike at tailback last year. He was the guy that we were most comfortable putting in to do that, and he did a good job of it.
Ketric Sanford: "He's an interesting kid. He's a ways away. In the situation we're in, it could take awhile to devote enough time to bring him along. He could end up on our practice squad or somebody else's, because he does have ability. He can catch the ball real well. It's just a matter of teaching him what we're trying to do. That's going to be the biggest hurdle for him to overcome, learning what to do when we put him.
"He's not real tall, but he's thick. He's in the 200s. I wouldn't say he's a speedster, but he can wiggle and make you miss.
Aaron Stecker: "That's going to be a real interesting one there. We'll see how he responds once he gets back after going through, really, an entire year of football. Whether he's burned out is yet to be seen. I watched him a few times when he played over there (in the NFL Europe League), and I was very impressed with him. And I was impressed with him when he was here on the practice squad last year. He kind of reminds me of (former Buc and current Dolphin) Autry Denson. He could, potentially, fill a third-down role for us. Again, it's just a matter of spending the time with him, and then I think he could help you."
Stecker did manage to grab a few weeks off between earning the NFLEL Offensive Player of the Year award and reporting to the Bucs' training camp, but it's back to the grind when the team gathers at the University of Tampa on Sunday. For this group, there's a lot to learn, but even more to prove.