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: May 04, 2007, 08:45:42 PM

From Buccaneers.com: http://www.buccaneers.com/news/newsdetail.aspx?newsid=5782

Searching for Answers

For the Bucs, the long and involved process of determining where their newest players fit in and how much they can contribute in 2007 began on Friday at the team’s rookie mini-camp


Mike McFadden played defensive tackle at Grand Valley State but is learning the fullback position with the Buccaneers

May 04, 2007 -

There were 53 players on the practice fields behind One Buccaneer Place on Friday afternoon, and probably twice as many question marks.

Make no mistake – there’s no question the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had an impressive array of talent on display to open their three-day rookie mini-camp. The riddle that must be solved is where all of this talent is going to fit – into the roster, into the depth chart, into the defensive scheme, into the future of the franchise.

There’s a college cornerback making the transition to safety and a ‘bandit’ linebacker used to free-wheeling it who must learn a more specific set of assignments. There’s a seventh-round offensive tackle who could emerge as a steal if he recaptures his junior-season form after a senior-season experiment at a heavier weight. There’s a college defensive tackle on a tryout as a fullback.

There’s a 5-8 linebacker trying to prove he can play taller than he measures, and a small-school defensive tackle trying to justify the Bucs’ draft-day interest. There’s even an Olympic sprinter attempting to translate his world-class speed into football success.

On the videotape, that gathered Friday afternoon and soon to be joined by more from practices on Saturday and Sunday, will be some answers. It’s just the beginning for the development of many of these players – and in important start in the tryouts of several dozen more – but every bit of tape counts.

As beginnings go, this one mostly met Head Coach Jon Gruden’s expectations.
 
“Well, it was a good start,” said Gruden after the approximately 100-minute workout. “We’ve got a lot of new guys here, obviously, 52 or 53 players that are first-year Buccaneers or first-day NFL campers. We had some spotty execution at times, we looked pretty good at others. We’ve got a long way to go but we do have some good young talent out here.”

Those questions of varying significance above refer to, in order, Tanard Jackson, Quincy Black, Chris Denman, Mike McFadden, Sam Olajubutu, Greg Peterson and Justin Gatlin. Jackson, Black, Denman and Peterson are all 2007 draft picks. McFadden and Olajubutu signed after the draft as rookie free agents. Gatlin, who shares the world record in the 100-meter race (9.77 seconds) with Asafa Powell, is one of 28 young men in camp on tryout contracts.

With such a mix of background and experience with which to work, the Bucs didn’t expect to get through a full practice with midseason smoothness. Only the smallest portions of the playbook were skimmed on Day One. But it’s a start, and everything that comes next will build on this first day. Gruden and his staff will be studying the videotape intently to see which players are progressing at the rate that is necessary to function within the team’s systems come September.

“Once we keep going through the installation – we’re going to get to our nickel defense, our goal-line defense, our two-minute defense, some of our checks and things of that nature – how well you can handle all of it?” said Gruden. “The zone blitzes, the pressure calls, all the things that you’re involved with can’t run together. You’ve got to be able to handle it and you’ve got to be able to function within the system as well as making plays.

It’s a little early to tell but it’s going to be a process that we monitor daily, and today’s the first day.”

Jackson’s experience is typical of what the newest Bucs are experiencing in their first taste of professional football, at least those who already have contracts. At the 2007 Senior Bowl in January, the Bucs’ coaching staff had the Syracuse defensive back on their North squad roster, and they quickly hit on the idea of playing him at safety. Jackson took to the experiment extremely well in the Bucs’ estimation – which they tried to remain blasé about – and instantly found himself on Tampa Bay’s draft radar. The Buccaneers were thrilled to find Jackson still available at the third pick of the fourth round.

Jackson believes, as the Bucs do, that he can successfully transition to the new spot on defense. However, that doesn’t mean the process will be easy, or accomplished over one weekend. Friday’s practice was merely step one.

“He’s got a lot of adjustments [to make],” said Gruden of Jackson. “He’s going to see some situations where he’s in the box as a linebacker defender in the eight-man fronts, so he’s going to get an eye-to-eye view of Deuce McAllister and Steven Jackson and some of the big backs in football. From a run-entry standpoint, he’s got a lot to learn, and [in terms of] overall communication, a position change forces a lot of newness for Tanard. It’s going to take some time for him to get it, but he does have speed, he does have the instinctive traits that you look for in a safety.”

The Bucs have a lot to look out for this weekend, dozens of questions to answer, or at least begin unraveling. Videotape will help. So will two more days of practice.


Speed Thrills

The Buccaneers’ coaches had some adjustments to make, too. For one, they had to take Gatlin’s frightening speed into account when drawing up how to run the passing drills, so that quarterbacks Zac Taylor and Pat Julmiste would be able to reach him on downfield routes.

“We made sure we threw the deep balls with the wind,” quipped Gruden.

The Bucs coach joked, too, that he was looking to get Gatlin to sign a couple of his visors. But the sprinter isn’t in camp as a joke. At 25, he is still in his athletic prime, and he wouldn’t be the first Olympic-class track and field star to successfully adapt his skills to the NFL. Any such undertaking seems like a long shot, but the possible reward makes the attempt worthwhile.

“If it can transfer to football, you have a real threat,” said Gruden of Gatlin’s undisputed speed. “If it can’t, it won’t work. Here’s a guy that really hasn’t played college football. He’s played high school football, he’s won the gold medal and he wants to give this a shot. This is a good launching pad, a good start for him to see how quickly he picks it up, how natural it is and how far he has to go at the same time.”

Obviously, Gatlin has to prove that he can catch the football consistently, or his speed will be irrelevant. He didn’t appear to have any problems in that regard on Friday, but he isn’t making any predictions just yet.

“I’m just working hard,” said Gatlin. “I’m just out here contributing, just taking a little time with the guys. I haven’t measured myself up against any of the guys. I’m just learning, learning what these guys are doing, watching what they do and trying to go out there and be the best that I can be.”

While Gatlin is not in camp as a novelty, it’s hard to forget that this is “The Fastest Man on Earth.” The Superman-versus-Batman type of questions always pop up, such as, ‘Who would win a race in full pads, Gatlin or resident Buccaneer speedster Joey Galloway?’ Nobody challenged Gatlin to a race on Friday, thereby proving that the collective intelligence level of this rookie class is high, but he said he would be happy to oblige if someone did.

“I feel the sharks coming,” laughed Gatlin. “I feel them.”


Standing Tall

As one mini-camp observer astutely put it after Friday’s practice, Olajubutu is essentially the opposite case of Gatlin.

While the sprinter has a measurable skill that opens eyes but very little experience as an actual football player, the Arkansas linebacker is a well-defined football player who must overcome his own measurables.

Any defender who produces at the level that Olajubutu did at a major college program – he had 372 career tackles and was a two-time first-team All-SEC choice at Arkansas – is going to get a shot in the NFL. In Olajubutu’s case, that shot comes as an undrafted free agent, not as a second or sixth-round selection, because he measures in at only five-foot-eight.

“This guy has already proved he can play at an ultra-high level at Arkansas and we’ve just got to teach him our defense now, reprogram him a little bit to channel his energy,” said Gruden. “But we know he’ll run, we know he can hit and we think he can be a linebacker prospect, definitely, in this defense. There’s no question he’s a football player.”

The Bucs saw enough of Olajubutu at Arkansas to trust his football instincts and his passion for the game. What the young man has to prove now is that he has such difficult-to-measure traits in sufficient quantity to render his height unimportant.

“We loved his tape at Arkansas, and then you have a hard time saying, ‘This guy’s really five-foot-eight,’” said Gruden. “But he will run sideline to sideline and hit you. I think when the games start, people tend to forget about the size of the man instead of the type of football player that you are.”

SHIVVER

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#1 : May 04, 2007, 08:54:27 PM

Great article....  It got my blood pumping!


gone

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#2 : May 05, 2007, 12:19:30 AM

I bet Gruden is Pulling for Olajubutu in his heart...
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