As a prep football star in Rolling Hills, California, Erik Lorig made an effort to watch Dallas Clark, the Indianapolis Colts' prolific tight end, whenever he could. Tight end was one of the positions Lorig played for his high school team – he was rated the seventh-best prospect in the nation at that position by Rivals.com as a senior – and Clark was certainly a worthy model to pattern his game after.
So it must have been a nice moment for Lorig last week when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers issued him jersey #44, the same number worn by Clark. Of course, to get that number Lorig had to do something few players attempt this far into their football careers: a complete change of position.
After recording 550 receiving yards and 9.5 sacks as a prep senior Lorig was wooed by a number of schools as a "double recruit," and he chose Stanford, where he began his career on offense. After a redshirt season and one year as a tight end, he converted to defense before the 2007 season and went on to play three seasons at end before the Buccaneers drafted him in the seventh round this past April.
The Bucs originally gave Lorig #97, and he performed well enough on the defensive line to earn a spot on the original 53-man roster after the final cuts of September 4. However, he was subsequently released, signed to the practice squad and, two weeks later, re-signed to the active roster. Though he didn't appear in any of the Bucs' first three games, Lorig's time on the practice field with the Bucs basically went uninterrupted.
And sometimes during those practices, when the starting defense would need a scout team to emulate the opponent, Lorig would line up at tight end. The coaches quickly noticed how naturally he moved at the position.
"He did some things at tight end for us, and once he got to our practice squad it was time to experiment," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Put him at fullback for this rep; put him at tight end for this rep. Then [Offensive Coordinator] Greg Olson gets greedy and he wants to steal him full-time. [He says:] 'I'm going to put him here. I'm going to put him there.'"
And so, suddenly, Lorig is listed as a tight end/fullback on the Buccaneers' roster, instead of defensive end. He could stay in his #97 jersey and still appear in the game at those positions on offense, but that would require him to report his status as an eligible receiver to the referee before every single snap. Thus, if he was actually going to see playing time on that side of the ball, he needed a new number, one befitting a player who might at any point line up as an H-back, a fullback or a tight end.
Though the new number the Bucs gave him might have been fitting, it really didn't change Lorig's definition of himself.
"I've always tried to go out there and just think about being a football player," he said. "It's always been like that."
The Buccaneers have ushered players through defense-to-offense position changes (or vice versa) on the NFL level before, if not necessarily often. When they drafted Jackson State's Jackie Walker in the second round in 1986, they considered him a potential linebacker or tight end, and he eventually made the switch from the former to the latter. Dana Nafziger made a similar LB-to-TE switch after arriving in Tampa. Harry Swayne came in as a defensive end in 1987 but can thank his long NFL career to the switch to tackle he made in his second season. Charley Hannah started at left defensive end for the Buccaneers in 1978 and at right offensive tackle in 1979.
But the thing that could set Lorig apart is that it is entirely possible he could see action on both sides of the ball. That's not necessarily the plan at the moment – he has been focusing solely on offense for close to a month – but the Bucs know that it remains an option.
And that only serves to increase Lorig's value. Like Nafziger before him, Lorig has significant value beyond his offense/defense orientation because he is an outstanding special teams player. If his newfound versatility helps him become one of the 45 men to have a helmet on for game day, he can make an immediate impact in the kicking game while the Bucs search for his best role in the other two phases of the game.
"The first thing that even made you think about [the switch] was his experience in college," said Morris. "He started out at tight end up there in college. Then you come back off the bye week, you activate him again and you see the chance to gain multiple roster spots on game day. So you just find out if he can do it. Because you know he'll be a contributor on special teams. Whether he's a D-Lineman, whether he's playing fullback, whether he's playing tight end, he gives you a four-phase guy on special teams, which is about 25 plays a game. And if he can give you anything at fullback or anything at tight end or anything at D-end, you've got a pretty dynamic player, a guy that creates a lot of value for you on game day."
Besides occasional cameos by defensive backs or receivers on the other side of the ball (think New England's Troy Brown, or big receivers like Keyshawn Johnson playing defense on a Hail Mary), two-way players are now virtually unknown in the NFL. Again, Lorig's role on either side of the ball has yet to be determined, and he isn't likely to play a significant number of snaps on both offense and defense in any game soon. Still, it would be rather fantastic to watch the young player even make brief appearances in all three phases of game on one afternoon. Lorig says such an outing would be "an honor."
"If I was asked to do that, I would definitely be excited to do something like that," he said. "I don't even think of [the positions] as favorites. I really like to do it all. Whatever they want me to do I just try to do it. It's a good opportunity for sure."
Lorig, who will turn 24 in November, is one of 30 players on Tampa Bay's current 53-man roster aged 25 or under. Many of those players – Josh Freeman, Aqib Talib, Gerald McCoy, etc. – are already cornerstone players for the franchise, and many more are headed in the same direction. Here on Buccaneers.com, we are taking a weekly look at the progress of some of those 25-and-under players; we've already discussed such players as Preston Parker, E.J. Biggers, Dekoda Watson and Mike Williams in previous installments here, here and here.
Today's look at the 25-And-Under Crew has a theme: new contributors. The Buccaneers' 2010 bye week came a bit too early to have much impact on the team's state of health, but it did give the coaching staff extra time to develop some previously unused talent. Now, as Tampa Bay returns from the bye and looks to build on its fine 2-1 start, some of those talents will be put into play. Lorig falls into that category, as do the following three young men.
- RB Kareem Huggins
Huggins was actually close to emerging when the regular season began, but he sustained a groin injury in the season opener and subsequently missed the next two games. That came on the heels of a very strong preseason – shades of Earnest Graham – in which he ran for 134 yards, gained 5.4 yards per tote and made several big plays by getting around the edge.
The Buccaneers kept the undrafted first-year player on their 53-man roster, expecting him to serve primarily as a third-down, change-of-pace back. Huggins might be the fastest player on the roster, and he also boasts good hands out of the backfield and surprising strength for his 198-pound frame.
Despite averaging just 3.4 yards per carry through the first three games of the season, Tampa Bay has remained committed to its rushing attack, and most of the weight has fallen on the willing shoulders of veteran Cadillac Williams. Now, with Huggins back to health and rookie power back LeGarrette Blount beginning to emerge, the Buccaneers envision spreading the carries around a bit more. Huggins could see his first NFL carry or reception as soon as this weekend in Cincinnati.
- WR Arrelious Benn
Similarly, Tampa Bay's coaching staff is still working on the best formula to get the most out of its young and talented receiving corps. Heading into the bye week, the team made it clear that one part of the formula would be more playing time for rookie Arrelious Benn.
In part because he was slotted into the somewhat more complex position of flanker, or "Z," Benn's path to significant game action was longer than that of fellow rookie receiver Mike Williams, the starter at split end, or "X." But Benn came on strong at the end of the preseason and then, after a couple weeks of limited action to start the regular season, made his mark again versus Pittsburgh in Week Three.
Second-year man Sammie Stroughter will remain the starter at flanker, but the Bucs intend to make more use of Benn in that role, too, thereby keeping Stroughter as fresh and effective as possible. The team is obviously eager to see what their second-rounder out of Illinois can do on game days; on the practice field, he has displayed the sort of powerful after-the-catch downfield running that made him such a highly-prized prospect.
- DE Michael Bennett
During the preseason, the second-year end was responsible for two of the four sacks Tampa Bay's defense recorded over four games. Now, the Bucs may be ready to find out if he can provide a spark in the regular season, as well.
The Buccaneers first claimed Bennett off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks last October, early in his rookie season. An undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M, he saw action in seven games for the Buccaneers, contributing five tackles and one sack. He was inexperienced but promising, and it was no surprise when he made the 53-man roster again in 2010.
Still, Bennett was inactive for the first three games of this season. That wasn't an indication that the coaches were displeased with his efforts; it was simply a numbers game, and the Bucs could keep only seven defensive linemen active in order to have enough help at other positions.
Eventually, however, the Bucs are likely to find a way to keep Bennett active on game day, and to get him into the pass-rush mix. Morris has hinted that such a decision could be made as soon as this weekend in Cincinnati.