In the spring of 2009, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used a fifth-round pick to try to add some depth to their offensive tackle position, selecting Xavier Fulton out of Illinois. Once the draft ended, the Buccaneers addressed the position again by signing rookie free agent Andre Douglas out of Temple. Fulton and Douglas both came to Tampa the next weekend for a rookie mini-camp, as did a mostly unknown player out of Southern Miss with a resume long on basketball and short on football.
That third player was Demar Dotson, who had all of a seven-game career on the gridiron in college. Fulton spent one year in Tampa while Douglas didn't even make it to training camp with the Buccaneers; neither played a single regular-season game in the NFL. Meanwhile, nearly a decade later, Dotson is the Buccaneer's entrenched starter at right tackle.
There are many different paths to a career in the NFL, and 30 young men are going to try to start their own this weekend at One Buccaneer Place. Those players – mostly undrafted rookies but a few who have been in NFL camps before – will take place in the Buccaneers' 2018 rookie mini-camp on tryout contracts. All will be attempting to get an initial foot in the NFL's door, as Dotson and others have done with the Buccaneers before, hoping to earn a spot on the 90-man roster and an invite to training camp.
Among those trying out this weekend are prolific Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson and Northern Illinois running back Jordan Huff, last seen leading a huge comeback win over Western Michigan. Tryout contracts can also provide opportunities for players from smaller college programs, and the Buccaneers definitely have a couple of those in Incarnate Word punter Joe Zema and Siena Heights safety Darius Price. Those two schools – located in San Antonio, Texas and Adrian, Michigan, respectively – didn't even have football programs a decade ago. Zema is trying to become the second player from Incarnate Word to appear in a regular-season NFL game; Price is the first Siena Heights player to get a call from an NFL team.
And, as was the case nine years ago with Dotson, there is a basketball player in this year's camp. The 6-5, 282-pound Brian Bridgewater, who played three seasons at forward for the LSU basketball team, is coming in to show his skills as a tight. He last played football in high school, as a jumbo wide receiver.
Non-rookies who have yet to log an accrued season in the NFL – also known as first-year players – are allowed to participate in rookie camps, so the Buccaneers have a handful of 2017 holdovers and offseason signees to add to the eight draft picks and 14 rookie free agents they added two weekends ago. That list includes wide receiver Devin Lucien, cornerback David Rivers, long-snapper Drew Farris, linebacker Jeff Knox and tackle Brad Seaton. Still, that's not enough to run fully functional practices, and that's where the 30 players below come in.
2018 Rookie Mini-Camp Tryout Players
|61||Jake Bennett||C||Colorado State|
|44||Alec Dhaenens||FB||Boise State|
|66||Devin Farrior||G||Southern Miss|
|32||Jordan Huff||RB||Northern Illinois|
|57||Nick McBeath||LB||Holy Cross|
|80||Chris Murray||WR||Arkansas State|
|26||Darius Price||S||Siena Heights|
|92||Dante Sawyer||DL||South Carolina|
|90||Robert Stanley||DL||Fresno State|
|90||Nathan Theaker||G||Wayne State|
|75||Jerry Ugokwe||T||William & Mary|
|52||Drew Williams||LS||South Carolina|
|35||Ryan Wolpin||RB||Boise State|
|85||Jaylen Zachery||WR||Central Missouri|
|6||Joe Zema||P||Incarnate Word|
(NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect several late changes to the list of tryout players who will take part in the rookie mini-camp. Southern Miss TE Julian Allen, Vanderbilt DL Nifae Lealao and Washington State RB Jamal Morrow were removed and the following players were added: Auburn LB Tre' Williams, Wayne State G Nathan Theaker and Iowa DL Nathan Bazata.)
It is common for the Buccaneers to make a few changes to their roster following rookie mini-camp, after a couple tryout players have caught the team's eye. Last year it was Purdue defensive end Evan Panfil, and in 2016 four players turned tryouts into spots on the 90-man roster: Texas Tech linebacker Micah Awe, Kansas State defensive tackle Travis Britz, South Florida wide receiver Andre Davis and Louisville tackle Kelby Johnson.
It's true that none of those players in the above paragraph went on to make the Bucs' actual regular-season roster, but wide receivers Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye both made that transition in 2015, and Humphries is now the team's main slot receiver. For some of the other players that try out during the Bucs' rookie camp, the exposure is enough to get them opportunities elsewhere. For instance, two players who tried out with the Buccaneers last spring – Duquesne tackle Larson Graham and Monmouth linebacker Darnell Leslie – are currently teammates on the Pittsburgh Steelers' roster. Some are eventually brought by the Buccaneers for another shot, as is the case this year with long-snapper Drew Williams, who is trying out for a second straight spring.
The Bucs will have two quarterbacks sharing the snaps over the weekend, as the team signed Arkansas' Austin Allen among its undrafted rookie haul two weekends ago and has now invited Ferguson in for a tryout. Ferguson led a high-scoring attack for the Tigers, tossing 68 touchdowns against just 19 interceptions the past two seasons.
Even after drafting USC's Ronald Jones early in the second round two weeks ago, the Buccaneers could still use some more running back depth to take into training camp. They will look at Duke's Shaun Wilson, signed right after the draft, and a pair of tryout players: Huff and Boise State's Ryan Wolpin. Huff averaged 6.5 yards per carry at NIU and scored 22 total touchdowns; Wolpin didn't play much at Boise State until last year but then contributed 749 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns.
Among the tryout players with local ties are Arkansas State wide receiver Chris Murray and Samford linebacker Shaheed Salmon, both of whom played their prep ball in Tampa. Murray attended King High School while Salmon attended Land O' Lakes High School.