With perfect weather and good attendance, the Buccaneers held their annual night practice on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. While it was a festive, semi-game like atmosphere, the Tampa Bay coaching staff followed a similar format to their regular full pad practices with a few fan-friendly events thrown in to entertain the those in attendance and break up the monotony of the training camp routine for the players.
The team began the evening practice with players walking the perimeter of the stadium greeting fans and signing autographs. One special group of fans that received extra attention from the players were the Wounded Warrior group from James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital. Bucs general manager Mark Dominik spoke about the special group and the importance of recognizing the servicemen and women in attendance.
"Our organization likes to have different people reach out in the community and for me, the military is really important and a sometimes underappreciated aspect of our country," Dominik said. "This opportunity tonight is the third year we have been able to bring out the wounded warriors from [James A.] Haley [Veterans' Hospital] and some of the retired and reserve military men and women. They enjoy the practice and we enjoy getting to hang out with them and talk with them a little bit. Then we go back over there during the year and say hi, bringing players with us.
"The whole point is, these officers and military personnel that get injured need to know that everyone appreciates them and their families for the sacrifice they gave for their country."
After player introductions, the team warmed up. When the stretching finished, the team broke off into groups as they normally do during the week. Soon the first of three skills games began, and the JUGS competition started with punt returners attempting to catch as many punts in a row while holding all the balls they caught. Michael Spurlock defended his title from last year's contest with seven balls in all.
The second contest the players participated in was a kicking competition between veteran placekicker Conner Barth and newcomer Jake Rogers. Barth and Rogers played a game similar to the playground basketball game H-O-R-S-E. Barth fell behind early after attempting a Doug Flutie-style drop kick that was unsuccessful.
"I normally make that one," Barth said. "But it is a lot harder than it might look. If I could have used a rugby shaped football it would have been easy."
Rogers, just signed Friday as a rookie free agent from the University of Cincinnati, showed off his leg strength challenged Barth's by connecting on a 60-yard attempt. Barth's attempt to match the rookie fell short.
"I saw what he was doing and thought, oh no," Barth said. "I looked at Coach [Morris] and patted my hamstring. I do feel comfortable from 55 yards and in, but didn't want to push it [this early in camp]."
Next the Buccaneers running backs, receivers, and tight ends matched up with defensive backs and linebackers in one-on-one pass catching drills. The offensive players handled the defense fairly soundly but the highlight for the defense was E.J. Biggers intercepting a Rudy Carpenter pass intended for Preston Parker that brought the entire defense on the field to congratulate Biggers.
Rounding out the skills competition was the QB Challenge that surprisingly saw newly signed former Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton and Rudy Carpenter advance to the finals, which Carpenter won.
The night practice ended with a fireworks display that had the crowd standing and cheering throughout. Buccaneers PR director Jonathan Grella said the organization was happy to interact with the fans.
"It has been great to catch up with our fans the last couple weeks with training camp and night practice, which is quickly becoming an annual tradition," Grella said. "It wont be long before our first preseason game and our season opener September 11 against the Detroit Lions.
"Individual game [ticket sales] are off to a good start and we are really looking forward to creating an environment that is electric for our team and hostile for our opponents."
Dominik was also pleased with the turnout.
"I'm excited because this event gets bigger and bigger," Dominik said. "I think everyone enjoyed it. We had a lot of fan interaction with our players, and a lot of autograph signings and the fireworks show at the end kind of topped it all off. You can see the players also enjoyed it. They get a little bit of that juice flowing meaning it's about time to start playing football again which is a good thing."
- Andrew Scavelli contributed to this story