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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Rookies Emerging as Potential Impact Special Teamers

From fifth-round LB SirVocea Dennis to undrafted S Christian Izien, a number of rookies on the Bucs' 90-man camp roster are already showing they could be big assets in the third phase of the game


The first two picks in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2023 draft class, defensive lineman Calijah Kancey and guard Cody Mauch, are trending towards Week One starting assignments, particularly if Kancey's calf injury doesn't linger. Fellow draftees Yaya Diaby, SirVocea Dennis, Josh Hayes and Jose Ramirez have shown enough early in the Buccaneers' training camp to suggest they each could have some sort of role on defense this year, while tight end Payne Durham and wide receiver Trey Palmer have a chance to carve out some playing time on offense. There are even undrafted rookies making noise in the first week of camp.

The early part of training camp is a time for leaning towards optimism over realism, of course, and it's likely that some but not all of those rookies will end up in their current best-case scenarios in 2023. What might be a more comfortable prediction is that this new draft class will make a significant impact on special teams.

That starts with Dennis, a fifth-round pick who has made a splash on defense over the last week, including a pair of impressive interceptions. Less noisily, Dennis has also insinuated himself into almost all aspects of the Bucs' kick-and-coverage game at this point. It's still unclear what type of job Dennis can find on defense playing behind Lavonte David and Devin White, but it seems likely he will have a lot to do in the third phase of the game.

"Big-time," said Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong of Dennis' contributions in his area of expertise. "The first thing about him is, he is what I call a 'one-timer.' You tell him one time and it is done. He lines up and you tell him one time to watch the twist, bam, he picks up the twist. He is very good physically, he is a physical football player. He is a smart football player and he can run. That is what you are looking for, tough, smart, and athletic. He checks all boxes. I am very happy with him."

The Bucs took Hayes a round later in April and are giving him a chance to compete for the starting slot corner job. In the meantime, he has already impressed Armstrong with his hard-hitting style of play and could be even more prominent when the action is live on game days.

"Josh Hayes is a guy who brings some physical toughness to your unit," said the coach. "He will show up even more in games when you are really going after each other. I think he is one of those guys that'll make you say, 'Wow, I did not know that.' He may not be the four-two guy but he is going to hit somebody, and you will know it. I am looking forward to seeing him."

Second-year wideout Deven Thompkins, one of last year's rookie success stories as an undrafted free agent, appears to be maintaining his spot as the front runner for the punt and kickoff return jobs. However, the Bucs anticipated giving him competition when they drafted the very speedy Palmer in the sixth round. Palmer hasn't budged Thompkins off that spot yet, but there's plenty of time left and the rookie can increase his value by working at several other spots on special teams.

"You look at a guy like Trey as a punt returner obviously," said Armstrong. "He has to learn to manage the game in this league, in terms of fair catches, peter calls, and all that type of stuff. He does have the talent. He does have speed. He can catch the ball, all those types of things. Where he could help us is possibly as a gunner, playing a five on kickoff coverage, we want some speed inside. On punt return, he could be in the vice although he is a receiver. He could possibly line up inside on a slot, coming off the edge as a rush guy. He could be a big four player."

The first of the Bucs' three preseason games is just over a week away, and Armstrong is looking forward to seeing how some of the team's other rookies can help on his crew when the live bullets are flying. In particular, he's contemplating whether the 6-3, 263-pound Diaby, who has impressed on defense with the power in his pass rush, could be a unicorn in kickoff coverage.

"Yeah, Yaya – I would say he would be a guy who will make you say, 'OK, I'd like to see that. I would like to see Yaya on punt. I'd like to see Yaya on kickoff.' He is very athletic and physical. It is on tape. It would not be a surprise if I saw him escape a block, make a tackle on kickoff, and run somebody down."

Among the undrafted rookies, one who has caught Armstrong's eye in the early going is Rutgers safety Christian Izien, who has also been involved in the starting slot corner battle. Izien is a shorter and thicker safety in the Antoine Winfield Jr. mode and his physical style of play could be an asset in the cover game. Armstrong expects second-year cornerback Zyon McCollum to continue to stand out as a punt gunner but will be looking for another player to complement McCollum and that could be Izien.

"There are some other guys who will get in the mix," said Armstrong. "Christian Izien is another guy who comes to mind that I am looking forward to seeing. As we get pads on – we just had a padded day, obviously, and went against each other in vice the other day. Christian is a guy who jumps out right now."

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