Greg Schiano, the first-year head coach trying to propel the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back to prominence, welcomed veteran tight end Dallas Clark to the effort on Monday. Schiano believes the Clark he inherited is the one that averaged roughly 80 catches, 900 yards and nine touchdowns from 2007-09.
"He's definitely a proven player," said Schiano of the former Indianapolis Colts standout. "I know he's had some health issues as of late, things that have kept him from playing the level of football he played a little earlier in his career. But I believe wholeheartedly that he's going to return to his form and play the way he's capable."
Clark, a first-round draft pick by the Colts in 2003 and a member of Indy's Super Bowl squads in 2006 and 2009, had 356 catches for 4,188 yards and 41 touchdowns through his first seven NFL seasons. Those are prolific numbers any way you slice them, and they were only trending upward, from 58 catches in 2007 to 77 in 2008 to 100 in 2009. Through the first six games of the 2010 season, he had 37 catches for 347 yards and two scores, stats that put him on pace for another season of almost 100 receptions. Late in that sixth contest of 2010, however, Clark sustained a wrist injury that would push him to injured reserve and cost him the last 10 games.
Clark endured additional injuries in 2011 and, like the rest of the Indianapolis Colts pass-catchers, the painful absence of quarterback Peyton Manning due to a neck issue. He missed roughly a third of the season and the Indy passing attack sank to 27th in the league. After the season, both Manning and Clark were let go by the Colts, who were engineering a radical change of course and would soon draft the Stanford duo of quarterback Andrew Luck and tight end Coby Fleener.
Manning landed in Denver and now Clark is in Tampa, and neither would be in their new homes if their respective second NFL teams weren't confident in their ability to play at a high level once again. The Bucs worked Clark out last week, gave him a clean bill of health and are excited about what he can bring to their offense.
"You do your homework and you give him a physical, and those things," said Schiano. "Our trainers and doctors met with him and we feel good. There's no guarantees in anything, of course, but we felt like this was the best thing for the Bucs."
Schiano even believes the various ailments that limited Clark's playing time in 2011 will work to his advantage know that he is healthy again in 2012.
"I think he takes great care of his body," said the coach. "The downside when you look at it is that he didn't play a lot last year. The upside is he didn't play a lot last year. So he's kind of rested."
Eight of the top 32 pass-catchers in the NFL last season were tight ends, including three of the top eight. Six of those eight prolific tight ends helped their teams make the playoffs, and six of the eight also operated within one of the top eight passing attacks in the league. The tight end has become an increasingly dangerous position in the NFL in recent years, and the most coveted ones are the players who can put up big receiving numbers while also providing at least adequate blocking. The Bucs believe they have such a player in Dallas Clark, as well as one who can help the team's young tight ends develop into similar offensive assets.
"I think what we need, he can do everything we're going to ask him to do," said Schiano. "I think it's really good to have a strong veteran presence in that tight end room."
WR Ellingson Comes Home for Shot at NFL
Greg Ellingson played his prep football at Tampa's Robinson High School and stayed in-state for his college years, emerging as the leading pass-catcher at Florida International. He even got his first crack at the NFL in his home state, going to training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars last summer.
Ellingson's football dreams did recently take him out of Florida, as he most recently played the 2012 season with the New Orleans Voodoo of the AFL. Now he's come full circle to his home town, however, as the Buccaneers announced on Tuesday that they have signed Ellingson to their offseason roster. A spot had opened the day before when the team waived/left squad rookie wide receiver Tyler Shoemaker.
The 6-3, 197-pound Ellingson just finished his season with the Voodoo last week. He played in six games for New Orleans, catching 33 passes for 475 yards (14.4 avg.) and eight touchdowns. He also ran twice for 10 yards, returned 10 kickoffs for 50 yards and, since the AFL is largely a two-way game, also contributed six tackles.
Ellingson finished his collegiate career ranked high on several FIU career statistical charts. His 14 touchdown catches rank third in team history while his 2,018 receiving yards are fourth and his 131 receptions are fifth. As a senior, he led the Panthers with 43 receptions for 612 yards and five TDs and earned Honorable Mention All-Sun Belt honors. At Robinson High Ellingson was an all-stat receiver who also played safety, tight end, punter and placekicker.
Ellingson signed with the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent last July but was eventually released near the end of the preseason.
Shoemaker originally signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Boise State on April 30.
Picking Up the Pace
Schiano is not the first Buccaneers coach to view the sometimes oppressive Florida weather as a potential edge for his team, and he won't be the last. But his up-tempo style of offseason practice could go a long way towards making that edge more of a reality.
As a former defensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes, Schiano is no stranger to working in the heat and humidity of the Sunshine State. Having spent the last 11 years in the (relatively) milder climes of New Jersey, he understands the contrast, and wants to use it to help his new team.
"Having coached down at the University of Miami and having coached in the north, when you get teams out there in that stadium and it's really hot, and you play at a high tempo and push the envelope, that really becomes an advantage," he said. "That's something that's important to me and it's got to be part of our advantage."
Schiano has established a rather fast-paced approach to his team's on-field work, both within the individual drills and during the transitions between them. He would probably run practice the same way no matter where he was coaching, but in Central Florida it means a little extra sweating. The hope, of course, is that the players master the tempo and the elements in the spring and early summer, so that they are prepared to thrive in them during training camp and the regular season.
Though it's a concept that requires hard work and sacrifice on the front end, Buccaneer players are willingly taking part because they trust in Schiano's plan.
"He's one of the smartest guys I've ever met," said tight end Luke Stocker of his new head coach. "He's got a rhyme and reason for everything he does and as players we really trust him. You can feel that guys are completely buying in."
Indeed, Schiano has been noticed how completely his up-tempo approach to practice has been embraced.
"They're doing a great job," he said. "I enjoy working with them. I know it's different. It's different for me, too; this isn't what I'm used to. But we're all growing together and I'm enjoying it. I hope they are. [Tuesday's practice] went well. We had a really good first week, guys are working hard and yesterday and today were really good, too."