WATCH: DT Akeem Spence on the competition in training camp.
Greg Schiano calls this week he and his fellow Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches are spending with the team's youngest players a "Rookie School," a precursor to training camp that provides valuable mental reps. You could also look at it like a training gym, however, because these rookies are preparing for a battle with the champs.
The veterans will arrive in a week for the start of training camp proper, and to be sure all 90 players will be working together to fashion the best possible team. There's no division between the veterans and rookies; even hazing is (thankfully) a thing of the past, though you will see the newcomers carrying most of the helmets in at the end of practice. Still, for each individual rookie on the team, his path to a starting job is currently blocked by an incumbent veteran or two.
The Bucs may be better off in 2013 with some of their rookies in the starting lineup, just as they were last year with Doug Martin, Lavonte David and Mark Barron on the field. But there isn't a veteran on the team who is going to voluntarily step aside without a fight.
"It's kind of like a championship fight – you have to take the belt from the champ," said Schiano on Thursday after putting the assembled rookies and first-year players through a 90-minute practice. "I think the young guys have really got to show that they're that much better, that they need to be on the field. That's kind of what happened last year. I thought that the guys that we played did that, they showed that that was the right thing. Just like anything else, you know you're going to go through some growing pains, some first-time-through mistakes. When you look at the [whole] equation, you take what gives you the best chance to win. That's how I've always played it."
Second-round cornerback Johnthan Banks and fourth-round defensive tackle Akeem Spence, in particular, have been mentioned as players who could fit a particular need in the Bucs' starting lineup this season. Banks, Spence and the rest of the rookies have been working with the coaches and their teammates since a few weeks after the draft, but that has mostly been laying the foundation for the competition to come. It's difficult to judge which players are pulling ahead in the competition without the benefit of padded practices and preseason games.
Still, the newcomers used that time well, and that showed when they gathered again on Thursday, according to Schiano.
"I think our rookies have as done as good a job as anybody in the league," said the coach. "In our seven-week rookie program and now this, what we call 'Rookie School,' it gives them opportunities to keep hearing the installation over and over again. Really, that's the thing that holds the rookies back, the mental part. If you select a guy that has the ability, it's usually just the mental part that slows you down. So that's what we try to do, our whole focus is to try to just mentally and physically rep it and give them a chance to compete once the vets get here."
While Thursday's practice was mostly low-key positional work and mental gymnastics, Spence knows things are going to heat up seriously in about a week. He sees Rookie School as an opportunity to get ready to hit the ground running when the veterans arrive.
"I'm trying to stay in the books, watch film and then just being able to come out here and run with the ones," said Spence, referring to the first team or starting unit. "[I want to] compete with the ones, make plays when I'm out there and then, if the coaches feel like I'm good enough to be the starter, then that's what I want. That will be my accomplishment and just keep that job for 16 straight weeks."
Spence and his fellow rookies intend to push for playing time once camp opens, but everywhere they push someone will be pushing back, whether it's on the depth chart or the other side of the line of scrimmage. Rookie defensive end William Gholston knows that will make the whole team better and lead to the optimal starting lineup.
"I'm going to expect to be 'welcomed' into the NFL," said Gholston with a laugh on Thursday, anticipating a trial by fire from the veterans. "We have some pretty good offensive linemen here. When you play against a high level of competition in practice, it only makes you better in the game."