The Bucs practiced under the lights Thursday night for the first time since they moved to Disney for training camp
In preparation for Saturday's preseason opener against the Miami Dolphins, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held their last practice of the week under the stars — "Thursday Night Lights," if you will.
The evening practice gave the team a chance to work under the same conditions they'll face this weekend, and it also added some excitement to the outing, according to Head Coach Jon Gruden.
"Yeah, they liked it," said Gruden of his players' reaction. "They felt like they were back in high school again. This is a great evening, a great facility, a great turnout from our fans and I just think it was really important from an evaluation standpoint that we see our returners, our receivers and our quarterbacks play in the lights were we're going to play Saturday night."
The Bucs seemed to be in good spirits as they sprinted around under the night sky. They weren't wearing pads, but the intensity level was high and the drills were crisp.
Wide receiver Maurice Stovall said he appreciated the evening session not only because of the more comfortable weather, but also because of the important preparations it made possible.
"It felt really good tonight," Stovall said. "We had a light breeze and it's probably around 85 degrees. It makes a big difference compared to the afternoon, as far as not being out in the sun. Tonight we were under the lights because our game in Miami will be under the lights. The ball obviously looks different from a receiver's standpoint at night."
The large banks of lights overhead, bleachers crowded with fans and much cooler temperatures after the sunset all had Gruden thinking that night practices were something he could get used to.
"I sure would [consider more night practices]," Gruden said. "The hard part is getting the players treatment, should we have an injury, and then getting a report from the trainers and trying to schedule the next day's practice. When do you watch the film? There are some mechanical problems with it, but we might have another one of these next week. I kind of think it's a good changeup."
Stovall agreed, saying he'd enjoy some more evening practices as well.
"That would be nice if he changed the schedule up," Stovall said. "But we've been doing has been working pretty well for us so far. We have fewer guys in the training room than we had last year and he's been taking it easy on us here in training camp."
With a spirited practice under the lights in the books, the Bucs also announced a change to Friday's practice schedule. The walk-through that had originally been set for 9:15 a.m. has been cancelled, so there will be no practices of any kind Friday as the Bucs head to Miami to take on the Dolphins.
Two Former Greats on Hand
Thursday night's practice was also boosted by the presence of two of the Buccaneers' most legendary players, Warren Sapp and Mike Alstott.
The two greats made the rounds, posing for photos and signing autographs for fans and talking to the players and coaches, with Sapp sporting a huge smile as he took in the practice.
While a certain veteran quarterback recently caused quite a hubbub with his decision to un-retire and request a change of address, Gruden laughed when asked if either of the recently-retired former Bucs approached him about making a comeback.
"Yeah, if they want to play, I assure you we'll have these conversations again, I'm sure," Gruden said. "Both those guys have a lot to do with the success not only that our team has had here, but some of the most thrilling moments I've had in my life. It's just great to have them back. They're great ambassadors for our program here and our city and Tampa Bay Buccaneer football. It's awesome to have them back. I wish they could strap it on and help us out. We could sure use them."
Sapp also took a moment to address the team at the conclusion of practice. Rookie quarterback Josh Johnson, who will get his first taste of NFL action in the very near future, said Sapp's message was to savor the opportunity to play the game.
"He was just telling us to enjoy it, to go out and do what we do," Johnson said. "He said it feels good to be back out on the grass, just smelling it. He's retired now, so he misses that smell, and he was just telling us to enjoy it while we can. That's the main thing I took away from what he said, enjoy it while you can."
The Citrus Park Little League team that won the state championship and is one victory away from the Little League World Series in Williamsport has a small connection to the Buccaneers, and Gruden was thrilled to hear of the boys' success on Thursday.
The Citrus Park all-star team, which defeated South Carolina, 5-0, Wednesday night to advance to the Southeast Region finals, is managed by Joe McGuire, whose son Mike is on the team. McGuire is aided by two coaches, each of whom also managed teams in the Citrus Park league and have sons on the all-star squad. One of those coaches is Doug Gilcrease, who has served as the Buccaneers' team chaplain since the early 1990s. Gilcrease's son, Levi, is on the all-star team.
The Southeast Finals will be played Friday night in St. Petersburg and will be televised on ESPN, beginning at 8:00 p.m. Gruden, who will arrive in Ft. Lauderdale with his team earlier that evening for Saturday's preseason game against the Miami Dolphins, plans to tune into the game.
After hearing about the Citrus Park team's most recent victory, Gruden couldn't stop smiling. As he left the Bucs' practice field on Thursday night, he offered this encouragement to the World Series hopefuls:
"Guys, good luck," said Gruden. "We're so proud of you. We know you can do itâ€¦just do what got you there. Do not let up. We love you, men, and we'll be watching you. All of us here with the Buccaneers are behind you 100 percent. We're going to get into Miami and watch you guys win, and then hopefully represent Tampa just as well on Saturday night."
More from Coach Gruden
Gruden revealed the quarterback rotation for Saturday's contest against the Dolphins earlier this week, but went into a little more detail on the topic Thursday evening.
"We want to try to get [Luke] McCown some work," Gruden said. "One of the great things that we've been able to do is give both Luke and Brian [Griese] NFL starter reps. Both these guys have taken a lot of turns in Jeff's absence. We want to see a lot of Luke McCown. I think in fairness of evaluating a quarterback, you need to let him play extensively. Hopefully we can get a whole half out of Luke. We'll let Brian come out and either finish the first half or start the third quarter and we'll try to get Chris some good looks as well. We'll try to change it up next week as we've done in years past."
Here are some other issues Gruden touched on Thursday:
On the night practice: "I like this. This was great, a night practice. This was a lot cooler. It was great to have Warren Sapp and Mike Alstott, two of my favorite players, out here tonight. We're excited to play a game. We're excited to get the preseason on and we're looking forward to traveling to Miami. We did hold Ben Troupe tonight. We think he'll be ready to go in the game. We also held Ken Darby, the running back, with a rib strain. We think he's going to be ready to play. Other than that I don't have any updates. Jeff [Garcia] is still getting better. B.J. Askew is making improvements. I ran some 100s with Joey Galloway and I'm on the injury list today. He's getting better. Cadillac [Williams] had a great run this morning also and that's exciting."
On if Garcia will travel with the team to Miami: "No, we're going to leave several players here. He's missed a lot of time, at the opening of training camp and the last eight or nine days. B.J. Askew, Joey Galloway and others will stay here and get double-day treatments where hopefully they can speed their recovery and get back out on the field Monday or Tuesday of next week."
On if Josh Johnson will sit out the entire game Saturday: "Yeah, we feel like we'll let him go up against the 18-0 Patriots. I give Josh a hard time. My alma mater, the Dayton Flyers, beat Josh Johnson last year, so since Dayton beat him, we're going to give him a shot at the Patriots. That's a good opening for Josh."