QB Ryan Leaf was impressed with the tempo of this weekend's mini-camp
For the 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneer rookies attending this weekend's mini-camp, the most important lessons came in the form of numbers: a blurred 81, a zipped #14 missile, the back of number 21's jersey.
Many of these rookies were stars as recently as last fall. Some will become stars on this level. Right now, however, they have stepped into the equivalent of an all-star game, and they've got to get up to speed to fit in.
"The biggest thing the rookies have to understand – and they get a little taste of it here – is how tough life is in the NFL," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy, as the mini-camp wrapped up at noon on Sunday. "It's fast-paced. They're a little bit behind, and they've got to do more than the veteran guy to catch up. They've got youth and enthusiasm and energy on their side, and they've got to use that, but it's not easy.
"I think if they get that message, that it's not easy … they've been used to being the best in their junior highs, best in their high schools, best in their colleges, and now you come where everybody's good and it's a little bit tougher. That's what you want to get across to them."
That message can be pretty evident when you're facing proven Pro Bowlers, as the rookie receivers were in the early part of team drills, near the end of Sunday's practice. Cornerback Donnie Abraham, one of the league's best, calmly took control of the left side of the defense on consecutive plays, first rushing up quickly to break up a pass with a rough play on one receiver, then stepping in front of another wideout on the next snap for an interception. It was a 30-second clinic.
Fortunately, Dungy believes his team, rookies and veterans, took the right approach to this early indoctrination. "I thought it was a good weekend," he said. "We had some very good effort. Our young guys did a good job of trying to learn what we wanted to get done, and our veterans did a good job of leading. So it was good."
Abraham, of course, had the advantage of far greater knowledge of the Bucs' system, helped further by the fact that the coaches kept it very simple this weekend. Too much detail forced on rookies too soon likely would have slowed the pace down and kept the newcomers from getting a taste of the cadence Dungy wants to set.
"(New Offensive Coordinator) Clyde (Christensen) did a good job of working with the offense, picking up that tempo and letting them know what we expect," said Dungy. "That helps the whole practice and helps the tempo. We went very slow as far as what we put in, so guys were able to go hard and that makes a difference."
Quarterback Ryan Leaf, not a rookie but in his first season with the Bucs after three in San Diego, felt the difference. His stay in San Diego was not a pleasant one for him or the Chargers, so Leaf was very concerned with finding a situation he felt comfortable in for his second go-around. He was persuaded in March that Tampa was that situation, and his first camp experience validated that decision.
"This was a great camp," said Leaf. "I really enjoyed Coach Dungy's tempo, the way things get going. You're really involved the whole way. There's not too much time when you're sitting out. That's a lot different from where I came from. It starts from the top of this organization, the way things are run, and it comes down. It's exceptional. Exceptional."
Kenyatta Walker, on the other hand, is a rookie, and one bearing high expectations since he is the likely starter at left tackle. He was the second offensive lineman taken in the entire draft, the 14th pick overall, but he didn't come to his first camp expecting the NFL to fall at his feet.
"I just wanted to know, can I at least compete with these guys?" said Walker. "You look on the board and you've got Simeon Rice, you've got (Steve) White, you've got (Warren) Sapp. You've got all these guys that you've seen on TV terrorizing the quarterback. I just want to know if I can get in there and compete with them. That's all I wanted. I knew it was going to be tough."
Walker has already been introduced this weekend to the talents of Rice and White through one-on-ones, a drill that should prove to be a trial-by-fire all summer. The rookie, however, believes such standout players will help him in more ways than one.
"They're very supportive," said Walker. "I like the atmosphere of this team. I came here and everybody wants to win a championship. I'm surrounded by great players and I feel the urgency. Everybody's with me, but they know that they've got to instill in me what I need to know to be ready to play."
The Bucs held five practices, each between 90 minutes and two hours long, between 10:00 a.m. on Friday and noon on Sunday. That's a somewhat grueling schedule reminiscent of training camp, but the more than 80 players on hand made it through relatively unscathed.
"We had a few guys with dehydration yesterday, which you can expect, and we had a few guys get bumped up, but everything is very minor at this point," summed up Dungy. "I think we came out of it okay."
Leaf sat out most of the final practice on Sunday with a strain of his right (throwing) wrist. The discomfort was not unexpected; Leaf injured that wrist last season with the Chargers and the team is being careful not to put too much stress on it.
"I broke it last year," Leaf explained on Sunday. "It's just stressful (to the wrist), and this is precautionary. We've got four guys (at quarterback) and this is the last practice, so I don't need to overdo it."
Leaf also indicated that he will give the wrist a few days to rest than get back to work the following week.
Veteran punter Mark Royals also took much of the practice off after suffering a groin strain during a collision in a punt-block drill. Though the practices were non-contact and no-pad affairs, there can be unavoidable collisions at times. When a valued veteran such as Royals pulls up lame, even for just a second or two, it can be a tense moment.
"Yeah, you do cringe a little bit," Dungy admitted. "That's part of what the rookies have to learn, too – how to go hard and (still) avoid that contact. We don't have a scout team like they're used to (in college). They throw around the running backs in college, and you've got eight more guys. We have to be a little more careful, and that's something they have to learn, but we like the enthusiasm."
Royals' injury is considered minor and should not keep him out of voluntary workouts, of which the fitness fanatic has been a diligent participant this spring.
Rookies, on the other hand, have to head back to their respective colleges on Sunday and cannot return until mid-to-late May. When they are cleared to come back to One Buccaneer Place, any that choose to do so will be involved in 14 league-sanctioned practices in late May and early June.
"Next month will be good for them," said Dungy of the coming workouts. "It's a good time for them to come back and get a good feel for what we do. We'll have the whole group here, pretty much. It's strictly voluntary, but we get a lot of participation."