The last two times Gerald McCoy visited One Buccaneer Place, he barely had time to catch his breath, let alone get comfortable with his surroundings. He flew in from New York the day after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took him third overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, but flew right back out after a quick press conference. The next weekend he was back for the team's rookie mini-camp, but that was three days of practice, photo sessions and non-stop obligations before yet another plane flight out of town.
This time, McCoy plans to stay awhile, as the Buccaneers have begun a five-week run of "organized team activity" days (OTAs) that will be capped in the sixth week by a mandatory full-team mini-camp. Day One of the OTAs was on Monday, and McCoy actually had time to lie in his hotel bed on Sunday and contemplate what was ahead.
Maybe too much time.
McCoy admitted on Monday, shortly after the Bucs finished their roughly two-hour morning practice, that he had difficulty sleeping the night before. He said he had fallen victim to the rookie jitters as he prepared for his first practice alongside his veteran NFL teammates; fortunately, a sweaty practice on a humid Tampa morning, occasionally graced with raindrops, was just the thing to drive them away.
"Yeah, I'm not going to lie," said McCoy with his already familiar wide smile. "I'm really not even going to make it up and say that I wasn't. I've been thinking about it this whole week. All last night I was in my bed, can't sleep. I was nervous. But I got one under my belt and it was not as bad as I thought it would be. That's just the rookie jitters."
The whole team – 88 players, 18 coaches, assorted staffers – had been looking forward to Monday, when the team's class of 2010 joined in with the holdovers and the spring veteran signees to form one unit. The post-draft rookie mini-camp gave the Bucs an encouraging look at some of their newest contributors, but it was not really a true test for McCoy and his fellow draftees. That changed with the beginning of OTAs, which was essentially the start of the process of molding cohesive offensive and defensive units for the regular season.
Wide receiver Mike Williams, the Bucs' fourth-round pick and an eye-opening performer in the rookie mini-camp, noticed the difference right away. His was a common refrain for an NFL rookie getting his first up-close glimpse at the pro game.
"The speed," said Williams, when asked what he noticed first and foremost about Monday's practice. "The defense knows the plays before you run them, the quarterback knows his reads before you do it. The speed of the game is like crazy. You catch the ball and you're used to running 50 yards up the field; now you catch the ball and it's like, 'Boom,' the corner is right there in your face."
Indeed, Williams and fellow rookie wide receiver Arrelious Benn now had to deal with the likes of Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib, while McCoy found out about Jeff Faine and the rest of the Bucs' interior line (Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph, alas, was out due to recent surgery but will be back soon). And if the newcomers thought their veteran teammates would take it easy on them, they were mistaken. Young players were literally battling for jobs in the camp two weeks ago, but Williams said the competition was even more fierce on Monday.
"Everybody's out there trying to prove a point," he said. "The veterans out there, they've still got a spot. We're here working for a spot. We've got to work for a spot and work for playing time. It's very competitive. Nobody outs there wants to make a mistake. You don't want to get a play wrong."
If mistakes were made – and surely there had to be some in this first intermingling of rooks and vets – they weren't enough to dampen the team's enthusiasm about OTA #1. Head Coach Raheem Morris gave the practice a glowing assessment a little later in the afternoon.
"It was a really exciting practice, an exciting day," he said. "I was really excited about the participation and all the guys that were here. Great energy. [The goal] is always the same in the offseason. I said it 3,000 times last year: It's timing and precision. It's keeping everybody healthy, it's making sure we can get to the next step and we can progress and we can teach football, until we get to the part of being physical and tough in training camp."
For the rookies, there is a somewhat more specific goal: Figure out what is going on. The 14 OTAs spread over the next five weeks (none next week) will funnel into the mandatory camp, which serves as a setup for training camp in July and August, which is used to get the roster ready to play actual games. OTAs are used to teach the playbook and establish a practice rhythm, and while they are completely voluntary they are obviously very useful for the players, especially the young ones. The Bucs would probably be happy if their rookies were in step with the veterans by that June mini-camp. Williams, however, hopes to accelerate the schedule, personally.
"I want to learn the whole playbook in these three days," said the rookie, referring to this first week of OTAs. "I want to go out there and know what I'm doing after these three days are over. If I learn the playbook I think my talent will do the rest."
The Bucs made a few changes to the roster before starting practice on Monday, all involving undrafted rookies.
Wide receiver Damola Adeniji, signed on April 30 out of Oregon State, was released and the team added Penn State long-snapper Chris Mauriello and Minnesota center Jeff Tow-Arnett. Tow-Arnett participated in the team's rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract.
In all, the Bucs had roughly 80 players in action on Monday, a near-perfect turnout. A few, such as Joseph and rookie defensive end Erik Lorig watched from the sidelines due to minor, pre-existing injuries and one rookie, UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price, was still waiting for his school's spring semester to end. A couple others, including running back Derrick Ward and tight end Kellen Winslow, should be on site soon.
"Those guys will be here," said Morris. "[OTAs are] obviously voluntary but those guys will be here. Ward and Winslow have been around a little bit in the offseason program, you've seen them around, their both working out through injuries, former injuries, getting back, getting healthy. I've got a feeling you'll see those guys shortly."
Like all teams, the Bucs want to strike the perfect offseason balance between preparing their players but allowing them to peak physically when the games begin. That means a carefully constructed schedule and some concessions to the conditions on the practice field. In particular, Morris has revised the OTA practice schedule somewhat this year, putting such periods as seven-on-seven and special teams at the end so that the team's biggest players, the offensive and defensive linemen, aren't overworked in the heat. The "big guys" got to leave the practice field about a half-hour before the rest of the team on Monday.
"They were able to get inside, get off their feet, get out of the sun, get inside the house," said Morris. "Then we got the other guys going back again, went right to our special teams period and then had a nice seven-on-seven. So we were able to save about 25 minutes of time, of outdoor time here in Tampa, and that's a big deal for us to be able to take advantage of that for some of our bigger guys, some of our bigger athletes."
More from Coach Morris
The Buccaneers' head coach touched on several other topics after Monday's practice.
On what he's looking for as the rookies mix in with the veterans:
"You just look for those guys to go out and do what you've seen them do when they were in college. You see all the symptoms and all the signs that you did in the rookie mini-camp, and now you've got a place for where you want them to be and what you think they can do. Now they got out there and you just want to see the confidence. You don't want to see any wide eyes. You want the guys to look confident. You want the guys to go out there and look like they belong. You want the guys to go out there and form their own identities. That's what some of the guys were able to do today. They were able to go out there and, without looking at the tape right here, giving you an instant evaluation, those guys were able to go in there and intermingle, somewhat belong and take it from the classroom to the field. They'll get better and better every day."
On Josh Freeman's development:
"Josh has been there this whole offseason. It's really been about the offseason progression for Josh and how much he's able to pick up. I don't know if you guys have noticed how much more he does as a quarterback than he did even last year when he had to play, how much [Jeff] Faine allows him to take over the offense and call the protections and really get to the point where he just corrects him, so to speak, sometimes when they do see a different picture. He was able to go out there and do those things. He was very impressive out there in his team blitz period, picking up all the routes and understanding what he had to do and where he had to go to. That's what you're looking for in a quarterback right now. As he goes along you'll see the better plays and the better throws. He threw a couple daggers at us today. It's easy for me right now, I can go to the offensive side and start cheering for Josh and when we make a play on him I can go to the other side and cheer for the defense. Right now I'm cheating a little bit but it's fun."
On what opportunity Michael Clayton has this year:
"He's got to define his role, just like we all do. It's a competitive league. We set up the draft with hopes of having a competitive nature at wide receiver, a competitive nature at D-Line. We talked about establishing the front line push. But we also want to establish the dynamic playmakers on the outside. I've got to respect how he came to work today. He played hard, he worked hard, he went out there and he competed with the young guys. And he'll continue to do that, and he's got to get better. We've all got to get better. We were 3-13 last year. We all have room for improvement, we all have room to get better and he's no different."
On Defensive Line Coach Todd Wash giving DT Gerald McCoy a lot of reps at practice:
"I've got to go check his count, I'm sure Coach Wash is just like any other coach – you go out there and play with your new toy, you like to play with it a lot [while] you put that old toy in the corner right now and you go grab it later when you need it. Ronde Barber only took three [reps] each period probably. You got that old toy in the corner right now. We'll have to go check the count and see how many he actually did."
On Angelo Crowell coming back after two years missed due to injuries:
"Here you go, here's his opportunity. Everybody in this building has an opportunity, everybody in this building has a great opportunity to go play for an organization that everyone wants to play for. He went out there today and practiced, looked good, had a little bounce in his step and I can't wait to go watch him on tape."