WR Brian Clark has seized every opportunity to impress the coaching staff this spring
The final segment of the final period of practice behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' headquarters wasn't going well for the offense on Wednesday. Incompletion, phantom 'sack,' interception, all in rapid succession.
So Raheem Morris stopped the drill, huddled the whole team around him and delivered the sort of high-volume inspiration you often see from an unhappy head coach. Refocused, the offense started the move-the-ball drill over and promptly completed five straight passes on their way to the end zone.
Two of the five passes caught on that simulated drive went to third-year wideout Brian Clark, including the last one, on which he took a short throw and raced to the front left corner of the end zone.
Despite some struggles by the offense, that wasn't the first time that Clark had stood out on Wednesday. In fact, it might not have even been his best day this spring. Fact is, Clark has opened some eyes this spring, most importantly the two belonging to Morris. Even better, Clark has some company in that regard.
At the end of last week's round of "organized team activity" days, or OTAs, Morris said this: "There are four guys playing wideout for us right now that are really fighting their butts off, that have really got me wired in. I'm not going to tell you who those four guys are because I haven't told my team yet. Once I present that to them in that team meeting, I'm sure they'll probably come out bragging how great they are. I'll tell you next week."
Sure enough, Morris lauded those four players in the team's post-practice meeting last Thursday. On Wednesday, he shared those names with Buccaneers.com, though the list has since grown by one. Not surprisingly, Clark is in that group.
"Actually, somebody joined that bunch this week, and that's Cortez Hankton," said Morris. "I wasn't talking about the obvious guys, Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton. I was actually talking about how well Kelly Campbell is playing, Brian Clark, Dexter Jackson, Sammy Stroughter and also Hankton. Those guys are really battling for that third kind of spot."
It may not be specifically the third receiver position behind Bryant and Clayton that one or more of those players ends up claiming. The Bucs generally keep five or six receivers on their 53-man regular season roster, and how many of them are active on game day depends largely on special teams play. Still, the depth chart is mostly a mystery after presumptive starters Bryant and Clark, so a significant role or two is in the offing. Though the real competition won't heat up until training camp, those five receivers aren't waiting until August to make their marks.
"They've been practicing the last couple of weeks and they're impressive," said Morris. "They've been driving that bus from the bottom up. I'm trying to see who can steal those spots at the end and possibly go in and help us, being a part of the rotation."
The 6-2, 204-pound Clark has been with the Buccaneers since late in 2007, a season that he began with the Denver Broncos. Originally an undrafted free agent with the Broncos, he has played in 10 games over the last two years for Tampa Bay; last season he saw action in nine contests, made one catch for 12 yards and helped out on special teams.
Campbell signed with the Buccaneers in late February just before the start of free agency. He is smaller than Clark at 5-10 and 175 pounds, but extremely quick, as evidenced by the 22.6 yards per catch he put up last year playing for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. Campbell has significant NFL experience, too, playing three seasons for the Minnesota Vikings, during which he played in 37 games with 11 starts and caught 57 passes for 1,062 yards (18.6 avg.) and eight touchdowns.
Jackson was a second-round pick for the Buccaneers in 2008 but he ended up on the sideline for much of his rookie season after being usurped in the kick return job by Clifton Smith. The 5-9, 182-pound speedster had been considered a little bit of a project at wide receiver anyway, so it isn't surprising that the Bucs would be looking to this offseason as a chance to progress Jackson's career.
Stroughter was drafted by the Buccaneers last month out of Oregon State. Though Stroughter is a seventh-rounder, he has impressed since Day One of the Rookie mini-camp in May. Coaches like the toughness shown by the solidly-built, 5-9, 189-pound wideout and have especially appreciated how sudden he is with his movements and his acceleration.
Hankton first signed with the Bucs last offseason but spent the 2008 campaign on injured reserve. He's back in action this spring and looking like the productive receiver that rose from undrafted free agent to four-year contributor in Jacksonville. From 2003-06, Hankton caught 34 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns for the Jaguars.
There isn't likely to be a spot for all of them in Tampa, and the competition will go to another level when the pads and the contact are added in training camp. For now, however, the Bucs are enjoying strong days from their young receivers like the one Clark had on Wednesday.
"It's been like that the last couple of weeks," said Morris appreciatively. "That's why [Clark] has gotten into that group, him and Kelly Campbell especially. They've been catching a lot of balls and just having outstanding days and outstanding individual periods. I've just really been impressed with those guys."
Becoming a Team
Last week, the Buccaneers worked hard to turn a practice-field scuffle on Wednesday into a team-building experience for the rest of the week. During the first two practices of the new week, the Buccaneers have appeared united and focused on the practice field, and Morris said the team actually has bettered itself as a result of that scuffle.
"You can see the whole team environment come together," he said. "You see guys talking and trying to take leadership roles. Jeff Faine today wanted to stop a period and start it over. Once you get guys feeling like that, you start to get what you're looking for. You start to develop what you call a 'team,' and how a team's supposed to work."
Faine dismissed Wednesday's dust-up as nothing more than competitiveness, and it's obviously true that practice-field scuffles happen all across the league. Still, he also saw a team that was rededicated to putting their energy into learning the new offensive and defensive schemes.
"This week the onus is on getting the mental notes down and really focusing on the mental stuff," said the Bucs' starting center. "That's all you can really do without the pads on. It's something we're focusing on, getting the mental things, flying around, being quick, and the physical stuff will come in training camp."
As Morris noted last week, differing practice tempos from various position groups can sometimes be the source of disagreements between players. That's why the coach is stressing "practice etiquette" this week.
"We've got to learn how to practice," he said. "This week we're learning how to practice so we can actually come up into a huddle and not have a fight. We can come out to practice and end it. We can end every play with great tempo and get a great motor out of everybody, and not end up on the ground, not fall on the ground, not dive for balls, not do the things you don't want to see, where people get hurt."