Head Coach Jon Gruden was pleased with the enthusiasm of the young players who took the field Friday
Somewhere in the crowd of 54 rookies and first-year players who took the field at the Tampa Bay Buccaneer's mini-camp on Friday afternoon, there were undoubtedly a couple young men who shrank when Head Coach Jon Gruden raised his voice.
Dexter and Amarri Jackson were not among them.
The two (unrelated) wide receivers – Dexter a second-round pick out of Appalachian State and Amari a tryout player from nearby USF – have no problem with constructive criticism, even harshly voiced.
Dexter, drinking in the whole experience of his first day of work as a professional football player, actually though it was "cool" when Gruden got on the assembled rookies a little bit. For Amari, dealing with it wasn't hard, compared with the serious challenges of a difficult childhood.
"My experience out here today has been really fun, all the rookies coming out here and guys working out, trying out for the team," said Dexter Jackson. "I just want to learn more about the offense, just get a feel of it with the team."
The two receivers have different tests ahead of them. Dexter has to absorb a complicated system before he can challenge for a major role in the offense. Amari must first find a more permanent spot on an NFL roster, whether in Tampa or elsewhere. On Friday, though, they were in the same boat, simply trying to keep up with the coaching and find a way to stand out in the crowd.
"There's obviously a lot of pressing going on," Gruden conceded. "It's a tryout camp for a lot of guys. Right now with the mandated rule, the way I understand it you're only allowed to bring 80 guys to camp. So throughout the NFL roster spots are at a premium, they're hard to get, so guys do want to impress. I'm sure there is some pressing going on. At the same time, they're learning a brand new system and meeting a lot of new faces. So this is tough. There's no question – around the league, this is tough. But I did see some guys really do some good things today."
The Bucs drafted seven players last weekend, signed five more undrafted free agents on Friday and then filled out the rest of the camp roster with 38 young men who are competing on tryout contracts. There are a few first-year players in the camp, both from the Bucs' existing roster and among the 38 tryout players, but no veteran with a year or more of NFL experience is allowed to participate. That means only a few of the 54 players in camp have ever stepped on the Bucs' practice field before or, more critically, seen a page out of the playbooks of Gruden and Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin. This camp presents the young players with a steep learning curve, and not much time to impress.
"We got in late Thursday night, we got them physicals, we got them a little information and we worked them hard today," said Gruden. "We introduced concepts, our base fronts, some base coverages on defense and some basic principles on offense, running and passing. To try to get [all the] new faces on the same page, just understanding the snap count and getting the center-quarterback exchange can be challenging. But I was pleased with it today. The coaches did a great job getting their guys ready to play.
"We'll try to do the same tomorrow and send them home hopefully a little bit sore. Hopefully we have gotten their attention."
Gruden knows a little soreness after this weekend will be in the players' best interests. You could call it a wakeup call – it's only going to get tougher from here on out, and the young men will have to improve their conditioning if they really want to succeed in training camp.
"None of them are in the kind of shape they need to be in; I hope they understand that," said Gruden, amiably enough. "It's going to get a lot hotter here and the speed is going to really pick up. I think they understand that. But in fairness to a lot of these guys, they've been making a lot of travel circuits around the country, visiting with other teams. They've got a long way to go to get their conditioning; I say that every year."
Gruden wasn't expecting perfection from the young newcomers, in terms of either conditioning or play recall, but he was expecting energy and enthusiasm. And he got it.
The 54-man squad that was on the field Friday isn't the one he would want to take into battle in September, but it was the perfect group for a pleasant, sunny day in early April. Right now the real trials of training camp are still a bit in the distance, and coaches and players are just happy to be getting back to some football.
"There's some real eagerness," said Gruden. "The blend between your veteran players and your young players has always been unique. You've got to have a certain chemistry and these young guys have got to fit in. But they are eager to learn – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as they say. It's a little more fun to be around these guys; they're not quite as grouchy as some of the veterans this time of year."