Bucs running back Derrick Ward returned to OTAs on Monday after missing last week's practices with "a dental issue" and is eager to get more chances to run the football in 2010. Ward also commented on the Bucs' work in Monday's two-minute passing drills and Earnest Graham's permanent move to fullback.
After vowing to have a better year in 2010 and attend more organized team activities during the first round of OTAs in late May, running back Derrick Ward missed three straight voluntary practices last week while tending to “a dental issue” in California. But Ward was back in Tampa on Monday for the first of four OTAs this week and discussed his absence and his thoughts on the Bucs’ upcoming season.
“Well, last week I had a dental issue. I was back home getting that handled and now I’m back here for the rest of the OTAs and minicamps and just getting ready to go,” Ward said. “It felt good. The weather is nice and I know we had a good two-minute session today and we looked pretty sharp.”
After practice Ward told PewterReport.com that his “dental issue” was no mere filling or even a root canal. He had two teeth extracted and still needs bridgework done. He said the discomfort was too great to participate in OTAs last week, but that he is at One Buc Place now and plans to be for the foreseeable future.
“They are voluntary, but it is good for the whole team to be together as one and get to know each other and get a feel for each other,” Ward said. “Two weeks from now, that’s mini-camp, that’s mandatory so it’s just good for us to just be here and be together and just getting ready for the upcoming season.
“It can go as far as we want it to go. We have all the pieces in place, it is just a matter of us executing on the field and right now that is what we are working towards. We're getting ready for training camp and just putting the pieces together and start off with a bang.”
Ward said that he isn’t too concerned about missing the four OTAs that he’s been absent for this offseason and indicated that he is already in football shape.
“I’ve been doing this for seven years now,” Ward said. “I know I have to stay in shape and be ready to come out and practice. I’m in pretty good shape and just ready to out there and participate and be a part of my team. We have a great bond here so that’s good to have that.”
Ward has been impressed with the development of quarterback Josh Freeman, who is going into his first full season as a starter after starting the last nine games in 2009.
“He has made big strides from last year to this year,” Ward said. “You know last year he was taking everything in. He was a rookie quarterback, he had a lot of stuff thrown at him. This offseason, he’s worked really hard and I’ve seen since I’ve been on the field that he has taken command of the huddle and the offense, and he is looking very sharp out there.”
Ward had the distinction of catching Freeman’s first career touchdown pass in Tampa Bay’s 38-28 victory over Green Bay on November 8. The focus on Monday’s OTA was the two-minute drill featuring the passing game, which is a phase of the game that Ward excels at.
“That’s what I was used to in New York,” Ward said. “I was the two-minute guy. I was the four-minute guy and was in on pass situations and contributed a lot when it comes to those aspects of the game. So it is just a wait-and-see thing right now.”
Ward caught 20 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns last year for the Bucs, but his first season in Tampa Bay was deemed a disappointment as he failed to beat out Cadillac Williams for the starting job and finished with just 409 yards and one touchdown on 114 carries (3.6 avg.). Bucs head coach Raheem Morris and offensive coordinator Greg Olson have discussed splitting the carries more evenly between Williams and Ward in 2010, largely due to the fact that Ward received a four-year, $17 million contract last offseason.
“I’m ready for whatever role Coach Morris and (Olson) and the rest of the guys on offense give me,” Ward said. “I’m here to compete. I’m here to help this team win, hopefully get to a Super Bowl, and I’m just here to be a leader. I’m one of the old guys now on offense so it’s pretty funny looking back at it now. It’s just a good opportunity for me to become a leader – a more vocal leader on the field and in the locker room and lead by example.”
Collectively, the Bucs only rushed for 1,627 yards last year, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. This year, Tampa Bay wants to emphasize the run in its offensive game plans and Ward sees nothing wrong with that.
“I like to think of us as a run-first team and I’m pretty sure if you ask Cadillac or Earnest (Graham), you know we want the ball in our hands to set the tone for the offense,” Ward said. “So, it will be a great opportunity for us this year to start with a clean slate. Everyone is excited about this upcoming season and we’ll see where it goes from here.”
A big part of Ward getting more opportunities to run the ball in 2010 comes with Graham’s position change from halfback to fullback. Last year, the Bucs had a difficult time getting enough touches to satisfy Williams, Ward and Graham. Now with Graham as a full-time fullback replacing B.J. Askew, Ward believes that the Bucs running game will flourish.
“I mean I love it,” Ward said. “Earnest is a team-first guy. He doesn’t complain about anything. He is my team MVP. I’ve said that before so it’s always good to have a guy like Earnest Graham on your team, especially when it doesn’t matter what he does. He is going to do it at full speed, and you know you can depend on him.”
The Bucs are depending on Ward attending more OTAs this offseason so that he can do his part to help Williams and Tampa Bay’s ground game have a better showing in 2010.Wolf Heard contributed to this report.
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