On the last day of voluntary workouts, rookie CB Dwight Smith made a strong impression as a player to watch in training camp
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers concluded four weeks of voluntary practices on Thursday and will not gather again as a team into July 29, the reporting date for training camp. Think of Thursday morning's workout as the final episode of the spring season. The coaches, the team and the fans now have six weeks of re-runs before the hotly-anticipated 2001 season begins with the first day of camp.
And, perhaps borrowing from the network television formula, rookie CB Dwight Smith used the spring finale to serve up his own cliffhanger. Smith was a outstanding in practice on Thursday, picking off at least three passes and leaving observers with six weeks to wonder if he will be this good when the pads go on and the real competition for jobs begins.
There were, of course, many of the approximately 80 Bucs on hand who had a strong practice on Thursday, the last of 14 voluntary sessions that began on May 21. In fact, since Head Coach Tony Dungy and his staff prefers to avoid evaluations at this time of the year, virtually any player who showed all-out effort had a good day in the coaches' eyes.
"What you really get an idea of is who seems to be committed to working hard," said Dungy. "Once you see that, those are the guys you keep your eyes on. Talent – most of these guys have enough talent to play. But who's willing to work, who's willing to spend the extra time to try to grasp what we're doing. That carries into camp and you feel pretty good about the young guys."
That being said, it certainly can't hurt to make a string of big plays. During one-on-one drills between the receivers and cornerbacks, Smith lined up for one snap against fellow rookie Frank Rice, giving him about a seven-yard cushion. Rice tried to sell Smith on a slant upfield before cutting back to the sideline for a quick out. Smith stayed locked on Rice's hips and was able to jump the route and pick off the pass just before it got to the receiver.
On Smith's very next time up in the rotation, he came up tight on the line of scrimmage against another young receiver, who then tried to take him upfield into the front corner of the end zone. Smith stayed tight on him as well and both players went up for the pass and got their hands on the ball at the same time. Though he came down hard, Smith was able to wrestle the ball away for another pick.
The rookie third-round pick from Akron then needed his left foot retaped by trainer Jim Whalen, as he has been dealing with a nagging but very minor injury in that extremity. That didn't keep Smith out of the one-on-one rotation, though, nor out of the full-team drill that followed. Early in that session, Smith showed a burst of speed when he closed ground on a receiver that was behind him and in the end zone and picked off yet another pass over his shoulder.
Of course, Smith was an extreme ballhawk last year at Akron, tying for the NCAA lead with 10 interceptions. Still, it's a surprise to see a rookie make such a splash in an early-season practice.
"It's time," said Smith of his Thursday display. "I've been here working, trying to get extra work in even on the days off. I'm just playing myself into shape and getting used to the heat. Coming from up north, we've still got 70-degree weather up my way right now. I really just want to be in shape when I come to camp and hit this thing running."
According to Dungy, that is exactly the purpose of these 14 voluntary sessions, most of which featured 100% participation. Not only do players get a small taste of the oppressive heat, which will only build into August, but they get a full helping of the playbook thrown their way. That's especially important for the newcomers.
"Now, when we come back to camp, they'll have a chance to step in with both feet and show what they can do," said Dungy. "With that, we'll be able to evaluate well and I think we'll get off to a good start.
This time of year, the young guys come in and want to do everything well but they don't know exactly what we're doing or exactly how to do it. When you can get the veteran guys here to show them, it really helps. We've got a good group that way. We've got a lot of guys that realize our team success is going to come from everybody being good."
Dungy has repeatedly referred to the progress taking place during the last four weeks as a base, a foundation on which to build when training camp begins. It's important that the foundation be laid well, and looking back over the whole of the workouts, Dungy believes that it was.
"I thought it was really good," he said. "Our chemistry, our work ethic are right where we need them. Our focus has been good. Now we have a crucial period of six weeks where guys are pretty much on their own, but I'm happy with where we finished."
These voluntary sessions are an annual occurrence at this time of the year, and they are always considered important. However, Dungy concedes that this year's 'camp' might have been more critical to the team's success.
"You probably could look at it that way, with four new coaches, a couple of new quarterbacks to break in and a couple of young guys on the offensive line," he said. "Every year is important but, yes, with the amount of new people that we have, it was good to get this as a base for us.
Many of the Buccaneers will remain in Tampa for several more weeks to conclude the 16-week offseason strength and conditioning program being run by coaches Mark Asanovich and Les Ebert. Others will head out on their own to speed camps, college campuses or weight rooms in their home towns.
"We always think it's better to be here, because it's more monitored," said Dungy. "But wherever you go, it's good to get in an environment where you will work hard. The biggest thing is, individually they have to know what they need to do to get ready, and most of the guys do know that."
It doesn't hurt to do a little home-schooling, either, says Dungy. Through the post-draft mini-camp and these voluntary sessions, the coaching staff has delivered the majority of the playbook to the players, even if some if it is not yet ingrained. Progress must be rapid when the team hits camp; the team doesn't want to tread water as players re-learn the playbook.
"A lot of them, if they've taken good notes they can go home with that and it will work for them," said Dungy. "Other guys want the playbook, want to take the actual book home with them and read it. Whatever works for them is fine."
The one potential downside to these practices is the possibility of injury, a chance the team takes any time it hits the field. Fortunately, though the practices were run at full speed without pads, the Bucs broke the sessions with just two injuries that bear following during the downtime. WR Reidel Anthony suffered a left ankle sprain on Monday and rookie guard Russ Hochstein incurred a stress fracture the previous week.
"We had nothing really serious," said Dungy on Thursday. "Reidel is probably the most serious at this point. It's going to take some rehab and some time. Jogging, running straight ahead, cutting – he's going to have to go through that whole process but we feel like we should have everyone for the first day of camp."
Hochstein's injury is called a 'Jones fracture,' and it's very similar to what TE Patrick Hape struggled with last summer. Hochstein's fracture is to the fifth metatarsal in his left foot, and he had a screw inserted into the injured area last week. The team used the same procedure on Hape last summer, but only after waiting weeks to see if it would be necessary. A more aggressive approach to Hochstein's injury should get him back in camp on time.
We may have to wait until July 29 to find out for sure, however. Just consider them additional cliffhangers, like the one Smith set up. The Bucs will go to camp with up to 88 players on the roster, all fighting for 53 spots on the final roster and an even smaller number of significant playing roles. Smith offered some guesses as to his own fall plot line on Thursday.
"A lot of special teams work, maybe some return duty, playing a little dime (on defense)," he said. "Anywhere they need me, I'm going to be there. I'm always ready, because at this level, you're one injury away from starting. That's how I go at it. I don't work like I'm a third or fourth-stringer. I work like I'm a starter, because that's how I feel."
Tune in July 29 for the next episode.