The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are now suddenly very thin at a position that has been strong for them all season. Going into the season the Bucs had one the better young free safeties in football with Tanard Jackson. However, the NFL suspended Jackson indefinitely two weeks into the season due to a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.
Enter rookie Cody Grimm, who was a seventh-round pick back in April. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Grimm stepped right into the starting lineup and played like anything but a late-round draft pick. But the Bucs lost Grimm for the remainder of the season last Sunday when he suffered a broken fibula in a 17-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
After Grimm landed on injured reserve, veteran Sabby Piscitelli seemed like a natural fit to replace Grimm in the lineup. After all, Piscitelli was the team’s starting strong safety in 2009 and was a second-round pick in 2007. But the Bucs decided to go in a different direction and released Piscitelli on Tuesday.
Now Tampa Bay has to choose their starting free safety between Corey Lynch, who has been a special teams standout, and Vince Anderson, who as spent all season on the team’s practice squad. Newly acquired Larry Asante, the rookie who the Bucs signed off the Cleveland Brown’s practice squad yesterday could also be an option as well. While the Buccaneers list Lynch as the starter on their website, he is not sure who will be out on the field with the starters come Sunday.
“Right now we have a long week of practice and a lot of film study, but we really don’t know anything right now as far as who’s in and who’s out,” said Lynch.
Lynch entered the league in 2008 as a sixth-round pick out of Appalachian State by the Cincinnati Bengals. During his rookie season in Cincinnati, Lynch saw action in seven games and recorded nine tackles, one interception, and one pass defensed. After being regulated to mostly special teams since coming to Tampa Bay, Lynch is just happy to finally have a shot at significant playing time.
“I’ve been working hard for three years and I am just blessed to have an opportunity,” said Lynch. “Obviously we miss the people that are gone, but I feel blessed.”
The 6-foot, 206-pound Lynch has been a key contributor on special teams since joining the team in 2009. Last season Lynch blocked a punt and a field goal attempt, both against the Atlanta Falcons. This year he also produced well in the pre-season. In the final exhibition game against Houston, Lynch had three tackles and intercepted two passes, one of which he returned 91 yards for a touchdown. Despite having the knack for making the big play, Lynch as not been able see the field much during the regular season.
“At the beginning of the season you just want to have a good pre-season,” said Lynch. “I’ve been having good pre-seasons and you just kind of have to wait your turn. It’s business, that’s just how it is.”
Defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake has been impressed with Lynch on special teams and in practice.
“He’s showed his stuff in practice, in the pre-season, and he has done a hell of a job on special teams,” said Lake. “We hope, just like anybody who was a backup like Cody Grimm, that carries over onto defense. We hope to see it on Sunday.”
If Lynch does not get the nod on Sunday against the Falcons then it may be Anderson who gets the start. Anderson, 26, was signed by Tampa Bay after being waived by the New York Giants. He entered the NFL in 2009 and spent his rookie season on the Giants practice squad. Anderson had been on the Bucs practice squad for all of the 2010 season and has been a part of the Bucs special teams in practice.
“I’m ready to go out there and perform and make my family proud and my coaches proud,” said Anderson. “And finish this race to 10.”
The Bucs have played the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Anderson at corner and safety in practice. While on the practice squad Anderson has been running other teams defensive plays to help the Bucs offense prepare for their upcoming opponents. Despite not running the Bucs defense, Anderson thinks practice has prepared him well.
“Yes it does. You actually go out there and I always thought to put myself in, even though I’m running their defense, I always keep in my head our defense and what we’re running,” said Anderson. “Even though I have to show them exactly what the other team is running I always kept in my head that’s how we’d do it if we were playing this, but I have to do it like this because that’s what the card says.”
Anderson said he gets a lot of support from his uncle, Reginald Mullins, who is three years older than him. Initially Anderson was at Nichols State, but was suspended for three years by the NCAA for academic fraud. Anderson said he and 15 other players were suspended, but he never understood why and what he did wrong. Anderson ended up playing college football in the NAIA for Weber International. Even though he and Lynch didn’t play for big schools or don’t have much game experience in the NFL yet, Anderson thinks whoever gets the job will play at a high level.
“We definitely aren’t going to have a drop off. That’s why you have more than one safety,” said Anderson. “Each one of us prepares the same way each and every day. That’s what you do in case something happens. Obviously it is a bad loss. At the same time we got to keep it moving in this race to 10. I wish those guys the best in coming back from their injuries and to come back strong. I want to let them know that we’re going to step in, whoever it may be, and we are going to finish this race to 10 strong.”
With Piscitelli now gone, Asante now becomes Sean Jones’ backup at the strong safety position. Asante was a fifth-round pick (160th overall) by the Cleveland Browns in the 2010 NFL Draft. He was cut at the end of the pre-season and has been on the Browns practice squad this entire season. In his career at the University of Nebraska, Asante started 36 of 39 games and recorded 224 tackles, one sack, three forced fumbles, and three interceptions. He was a first-team All Big-12 selection as a senior. Entering the NFL, Asante had the reputation as a hard hitter and a good run defender that was limited athletically. That reputation has Coach Lake excited now that he is on the roster.
“I was a big Larry fan when he was coming out in the draft,” said Lake. “I liked him a lot and we are real fortunate to get him from Cleveland. I’m excited to see him tomorrow when go full-speed. He was a very, very tough football player coming out of Nebraska. Didn’t have a lot of interceptions so I would like to see more ball skills, but his movement is really good and he’s very tough.”
Asante is excited for the opportunity to be on an active roster, especially since it’s Tampa Bay’s.
“As a professional athlete you want to play,” said Asante. “It is a blessing. Once again I praise the Lord for reuniting me with a coach I always wanted to play for. It is truly a blessing.
“When I got the call I was real excited because it was with coach [Morris] and the opportunity to come in and prove myself that I can compete in the National Football League at a high level. That’s what I was really excited about. I came in ready to work. I came in ready to learn the playbook at the same time they are taking their time. I’m going to get with coach and try and learn the playbook as fast as I can so I can get there on the field and help the team.”
Asante said he always wanted to play for Morris. When Morris was the defensive coordinator at Kansas State in 2006, he was recruiting Asante out of Coffeyville Community College. Asante ended up choosing Nebraska and Morris left Kansas State to return to the Buccaneers.
“I recruited him at junior college,” said Morris. “I went down there and visited him and tried to get him. He went to Nebraska and its been good for him. He went over there and had a good career. I was going to steal him and make him a Will linebacker, my Derrick Brooks in college football. He wanted to play safety and went to Nebraska. He had a good career. He made himself a [fifth-] round pick and we’re happy we got him.”
- by Wolf Heard and Charlie Campbell