The 70 or so rookies participating in this weekend's mini-camp at One Buccaneer Place will soon disperse back to their respective colleges. Most won't be eligible to come back to Tampa Bay Buccaneers headquarters until mid-May (and, of course, many will not return at all, having come to town on three-day tryout contracts).
What will these young men do with the two intervening weeks, besides studying for whatever finals remain on their spring-semester docket? It's a good bet that many of them will be doing whatever it takes to remain in tip-top physical shape.
Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris says many NFL teams - including his own - pack their rookie mini-camp schedule with enough meetings, practices and film sessions to keep the visiting players in constant motion. While it might be tempting to take it easy on the wide-eyed newcomers, let them ease into their NFL careers, Morris says it's more effective in the long run to throw them into the fire. It's sort of the 'Scared Straight' approach - it's better if the players learn early that an NFL career requires a lot of hard work and dedication.
"For me, it's about teaching them the grind of meetings, since that's what you don't really get in college with the 24-hour rule," said Morris. "You get a limited amount of time with the guys and so they aren't used to the grind of coming to work at eight o'clock in the morning and having to be in the building and go get treatment. It's not just in case they're hurting anymore, it's part of their job. They're not used to having to sit in a meeting room and then move into your next meeting and then going into a walk-through and then going back to a meeting and then going back out and having to get taped before you go to a meeting before practice and then going to eat lunch. It's a rigorous schedule and that's what you have to get them used to."
The first two days of the team's mini-camp have been not only rigorous but hot. The cloud cover that made Friday's practice somewhat more bearable was gone on Saturday, and the heat continued to climb. The Buccaneers, as a franchise, have long maintained that working through such heat rather than trying to escape it is an advantage for the team. It probably didn't feel that way to rookies from such places as Illinois, Colorado and New England on Saturday, but they'll soon find that there is no concession given to Tampa's sometimes oppressive weather.
"When you get them on the field you try to run them until their tongues fall out of their mouths so that they go home and they're a little scared knowing that they have to get in shape," said Morris. "Because it's only going to get worse from here. And I told them it does. We had great overcast weather [Friday], and they don't realize what it can be like. A couple of the guys were like, 'Man, it's hot out here!' Well, yeah."
Brian Price is not one of the 49 players who are trying to impress Buccaneers coaches and scouts enough over these three days to get a callback. It just feels that way to the former UCLA star.
Nothing is guaranteed to Price or any player at One Buc Place this weekend, of course, but as the 35th overall pick in the 2010 draft, he's a virtual lock to be on the Buccaneers' roster this fall, even if he's not treating it that way. Only one pick in Rounds One-Three in team history has failed to ever appear on the team's regular-season roster (LB Steve Maughan) and that was way back in 1976.
Still, Price feels a kinship with all 80 players on the field this weekend.
"This is a great experience," he said. "It's a dream come true, just out here playing football with grown dudes, trying out for an NFL team. I'm just taking advantage of the opportunity.
"Football is football. It's a competitive sport. Once you step out onto the grass, you've got to compete. Everybody out there knows that. There are guys out there fighting to get on the squad. We're fighting to make it as well, so we're just out there flying around, trying to learn the system."
In Price's case, he's also learning the nuances of a position that, while not drastically different from what he was used to at UCLA, is nonetheless something of a new experience. With first-round pick Gerald McCoy lining up at the three-technique or under tackle DT spot, Price is currently slotting in next to him at nose tackle. The Bucs will want both of their interior linemen to be complete players, holding stout against the run and collapsing the pocket on the quarterback, but there are different assignments for the two positions.
"I'll fit in wherever they want me to fit in," said Price. "Whatever coach wants me to do, I'm doing it. Right now I'm playing nose and just having a good time. I'm learning how to play nose for the first time; it's a good experience."
It's too bad second-year quarterback Josh Freeman is ineligible to participate in this weekend's rookie mini-camp. The job has been handled ably by Jevan Snead, Matt Grothe and Bobby Reid thus far, but Freeman would surely enjoy tossing the football to a few of his old running mates.
The Buccaneers' drafted Freeman out of Kansas State last year, after the quarterback's junior campaign. Had he stuck around for one more year, Freeman would have had another opportunity to target wide receiver Brandon Banks and tight end Jeron Mastrud. Both Banks and Mastrud, now NFL rookies themselves, are participating in the Buccaneers' camp.
Mastrud will be back in mid-May to work with Freeman again, as he was signed by the Bucs as an undrafted free agent earlier in the week. Banks could be, too, if he impresses enough during his three-day tryout to earn a more lasting spot on the offseason roster. One thing was clear enough on the practice field on Friday as camp began: Banks is fast.
The former Wildcat isn't big (5-7 and 142 pounds) but his speed might earn him a shot in the NFL, just as it earned him a recruiting trip from Morris in 2006 when the Bucs coach was on the Kansas State coaching staff. Morris saw Banks at a Nike camp and remembered comparing him to the Flintstones' Kazoo because his size and speed made it look like just a helmet was flying around the field. Banks went to Virginia Tech and then ended up at K-State after Morris' departure.
Morris wanted another look at the receiver now that he's trying to make it on the next level.
"We brought him in here and he's fast," said the Bucs coach. "He definitely knows our quarterback, he has familiarity with the system and the scheme since he did some similar things over there at K-State. The coaches keep talking about, 'Who's that little fast guy?' and I kind of laugh because I know right away who they're talking about. That's how you get guys brought up, that's how you make a name for yourself as a player."