As if learning how to play right tackle in the NFL on the fly wasn’t hard enough for Demar Dotson, a second-year player who had never played a down of offensive football in his life prior to making the team as an undrafted free agent last year, now the Buccaneers are sticking him at left tackle where he is charged with the responsibility of protecting the blindside of franchise quarterback Josh Freeman.
No pressure, right?
No other Buccaneer has shown as much improvement from his rookie campaign to his second year more than Dotson. After all, when you enter the NFL with absolutely zero knowledge of playing offensive line there is nowhere to go but up.
Dotson was the longest of long shots last year to make the Buccaneers roster. In 2009, he was invited to Tampa Bay’s rookie mini-camp on a tryout basis armed with only one year’s worth of experience playing organized football, which came at defensive tackle during his senior season at Southern Miss after a four-year career playing basketball. But the 6-foot-9, 300-pounder showed the athleticism, quick feet and long arms that are ideal to play offensive tackle in the NFL.
A strong showing in the preseason earned Dotson a place on Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster as opposed to the practice squad. Now after showing the team he could play right tackle adequately enough, offensive line coach Pete Mangurian has moved Dotson to the left side where he is currently the starter while restricted free agent Donald Penn, who has been the team’s regular starter since 2007, continues to hold out for a long-term. Penn’s absence from the organized team activities (OTAs) has given Dotson even more reps that have speeded up his development.
“Donald is a great player and I can learn from that guy, but you wish he was here,” Dotson said. “You wish he was protecting Josh and you wish he was here working with the O-line instead of not being here. Since he is not here, I’m thankful that I’m able to get these reps and learn left tackle and go through OTAs and training camp and by the time preseason starts I know I have it down pat.”
Dotson admits that left tackle is an entirely different position than the right tackle position is.
“It’s just a whole new side,” Dotson said. “I was kicking it with the right side last year, now I’m kicking it with the left. It’s a big adjustment. It’s like trying to learn how to walk again. I have struggle everyday so I’m trying to get it down the best I can.”
Mangurian knows that Dotson is concerned with the responsibilities that come with being the blindside protector of a right-handed quarterback, but insists that he must forge ahead through the difficulties he’s facing.
“I don’t think moving from right tackle to left tackle has anything to do with that,” Mangurian said. “I know Dotson is concerned about that. He’s just learning how to play football. He’s getting better every day and he’s working really hard at it. It’s just another step along the way. If you are not a starter in this league you better know how to play both sides anyway, and obviously left tackle is harder than right. Donald is not here right now and that’s helping Dotson become a better player. I’m really pleased with the way he’s working and we’re going to keep working at it. We’re happy with what he’s doing.”
The more reps Dotson gets against the likes of starting defensive end Stylez G. White in Penn’s absence the better in terms of getting him better acclimated to the nuances of playing left tackle.
“I was a little uncomfortable at left tackle though OTAs and I am still adjusting to it,” Dotson said. “I think as days go by and I work out here everyday that I’ve got the assistant O-line coach working with me and veterans like [center Jeff] Faine, [right tackle Jeremy] Trueblood and [right guard] Davin [Joseph] working with me at left tackle so it’s an adjustment everyday. I think I can do it. I can get it. I know this is not going to happen overnight, so I just work at it just try to get more comfortable everyday.”
Learning the game of football for the first time at the NFL level can be mentally daunting, but the biggest physical adjustment that Dotson has had to made since entering the league last year is remaking his body in the weight room. That process started at Southern Miss when he used up his eligibility to play basketball and started to hit the weight room with the football team prior to his senior season when he played defensive tackle.
“I went from like 260 to like 290 pounds,” Dotson said. “When the season was over I was almost 300 pounds going into the rookie minicamp. It was just a lot of eating. I ate a whole lot. I started eating more snacks throughout the night to gain the weight.”
On the basketball court, Dotson wanted to be every inch of 6-foot-9 to help from a shot-blocking and rebounding perspective. On the football field, Dotson’s long legs can be a detriment when he gets down in his three-point stance.
“You have to stay low,” Dotson said. “That’s the biggest thing that [Coach Mangurian] harped on with us. Staying low and keeping your knees bent. I’m so used to standing up high because I played basketball. Out here if [your stance] is high these guys will bull rush you into the quarterback. I have to try my best when I’m on the line thinking about staying low and thinking about keeping my hands in. I have to work on keeping these things in my mind.”
When Dotson was informed that he would be moving to left tackle in 2010, he decided to return to One Buccaneer Place in February for some one-on-one schooling with Mangurian to get him better prepared for the OTAs.
“The thing is I know that if I was on the right side now I would be a whole lot better because I went through the whole right side,” Dotson said. “Now on the left, I’m adjusting, I’m working and I am basically starting back over. Now my knowledge of the game is so much better. I came here right after the Super Bowl about six or seven weeks early and I started working with Pete. What I learned in that six or seven weeks was more than I learned the whole year and it’s just been helpful.”
Mangurian acknowledged that the extra time spent was needed for a player like Dotson, who has very little football background.
“I think it’s just football with him,” Mangurian said. “He hasn’t played a lot of football. He’s learning how to play. That’s all he needed. This is a guy that wants to work hard. He works hard at it and he wants to be a good player. He takes a lot of pride in himself. He just has to know there is no shortcut for experience. He’s putting his time in and hopefully it will pay off.”
There have been no shortcuts for Dotson in his young, fledgling NFL career. It’s taken a lot of hard work, self-belief and faith.
“I thank God that he gave me this body and put me in this position,” Dotson said. “I am thankful everyday that they put me in this position when they have guys like James Lee, who has played left tackle all throughout college, and Xavier Fulton, who they drafted to be a left tackle and somehow through the grace of God I’m here. I’m working and grateful everyday and just keeping my ears open and learning from these veterans and coaches and I can even learn from these rookies. So, I’m just out here learning and trying to get more comfortable everyday.
“It’s up to me everyday to work and learn and soak this knowledge up. It’s about getting here and staying after an extra 15 or 20 minutes to work on sets and getting in the weight room. This is my job. I have to approach this as my job. It’s an everyday process. Just constantly working and constantly learning and keeping my head in it.”
Dotson knows that when Penn returns he’ll be relegated to a backup role, but he’ll have spent this offseason becoming a more experienced and versatile player. Dotson knows there is great value in being a swing tackle in the NFL.
“I just come out here and work and whatever they ask me to be, whatever they want me to do, I try to do it,” Dotson said. “Whether it is left tackle swing tackle, tight end if they want me to do it I will. That’s what I am here for – just to do whatever they ask. The more I can do, the more I will stick around. I just want to learn the best I can because I am a guy who is so inexperienced. I have to learn fast and do what I have to do until I earn that starting position on the line.”
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