SR's Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place:
FAB 1. Aside from free safety Ronde Barber there might not have been a happier current Buccaneer than fellow safety Ahmad Black when Tampa Bay won Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002. Dressed in his Barber jersey Black was a 12-year old Bucs fan in Lakeland, Fla. when he saw his favorite team finally bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
“I remember the Bucs beating the Eagles in the championship game and the Raiders in the Super Bowl like it was yesterday,” Black said.
Little did he know 10 years later he would be playing alongside Barber, his idol, in the NFL wearing the red and pewter of Tampa Bay. As glorious as it was to see his Buccaneers win the Super Bowl, being a Buccaneer and having a living legend mentor Black is a dream come true. Even though Black and Barber have been teammates for nearly two years you can see how genuinely star struck Black is to this day by the big grin on his face when talking about the team’s all-time leading interceptor.
“I’m always around Ronde,” Black said. “I don’t even think he knows it. Whether it is in the weight room, whether it’s in the locker room or on the sidelines I always find myself around him. I ask him what he’s thinking about and what do we have going on in a particular coverage or the ins and outs of our defense.”
But Black isn’t just soaking up the knowledge from the 16-year veteran and future Hall of Famer. The second-year player from the University of Florida also finds plenty of time to play the role of a Tampa Bay fan and ask Barber about the glory days of the Buccaneers.
“I talk to him all the time on and off the field,” Black said. “He probably gets tired of asking me about older players. I ask him about the players he played with when I was growing up watching the team. I grew up watching the Buccaneers and I ask him about John Lynch and all those guys.
“I have a lot of favorite Buccaneers. I catch myself asking Ronde all the time about other players. I talk to Brad Culpepper every time I see him. That guy is so funny. He’s one of my favorites. Of course there is Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch. Shelton Quarles, too. There have been some great Bucs come through that I really liked. Warrick Dunn was here for a while. I really liked them all.”
Count Black among the thousands of Bucs fans who will anxiously await the reunion of the 2002 Super Bowl team this weekend for the Tampa Bay vs. Philadelphia contest.
“It’s weird because now I’m a professional,” Black said. “I talked to John Lynch the other day and said a few words to him. It’s a little bit different watching him play for years and now talking to him outside of football after he’s retired. When I was growing up I was a kid and they were professionals. It’s surreal seeing those guys who are legends here. It will be great to see them.”
Of course there is nothing worse then meeting a hero from your youth and having that interaction be disappointing because the person did not live up to your childhood expectations. But Barber is one of the most gentlemanly, intelligent and classiest Buccaneers of all time and Black is certainly not disappointed to have his hero turn into his mentor.
“He’s a class act all the way,” Black said of Barber. “Ronde came in the league in 1997 when I was about eight years old. I told him that when he had the interception against Philly to get them to the Super Bowl I ran out of my house and down the street screaming and yelling. I still remember that to this day. I remember the Super Bowl celebration. It’s amazing that I used to watch him on TV as a young kid and now I play alongside him. It’s weird.”
Barber has taken Black’s fandom in stride, and he has grown to appreciate him as a player. After spending most of his rookie year on the practice squad, Black has now put himself in position to start at free safety in Tampa Bay’s dime defensive package while Barber moves to the slot cornerback position. Both Black and Barber, who has successfully transitioned to free safety after spending 15 illustrious seasons at cornerback, are learning the nuances of playing free safety in the NFL together.
“He’s slowly figured out everything he needs to know to become a good football player,” Barber said of Black. “It happens that way. We’ve given him plenty of opportunities to do it, so you would expect it out of him. I’m sure he expects it out of himself.
“Here’s a funny story about Ahmad. The first week of training camp last year his mom was here and he introduced me to her and she said to me, ‘Make sure you teach my baby everything you know and everything you’ve learned’ I kind of laughed because we didn’t even play the same position. Now, a year later, he’s backing me up and he’s learning everything I’ve taught him.”
At times when Black talks about Barber the innocence and idolization of that 12-year old boy reveals itself.
“I walked by Ronde’s locker and he had his Tiki and Ronde illustrated kids book out,” Black said. “I saw that and I just sat down and read it. I couldn’t help myself. I told him about it because I asked him questions about his book. It was awesome.”
Black’s good friend, Bucs middle linebacker Mason Foster, sees how happy he is every day that he comes to work and gets to soak up Barber’s wisdom.
“It feels great for all of us to play with Ronde, let alone someone who grew up in this area and watched him,” Foster said. “Ronde was his favorite player. It’s got to be crazy for him. It’s great for us to have a leader like that around the locker room, so for him to be playing the same position has to be really great.”
So the natural question for Black that begs to be asked is if he has gotten Barber’s autograph yet.
“No, I haven’t asked for his autograph yet, but I’m going to get it. I want it!” Black said.
“No, he hasn’t gotten it yet,” Barber confirmed. “I’ll get it to him at the end of the year. He showed me pictures of himself as a kid when he was this high (points to his chest) wearing my jersey.”
“He doesn’t know it yet, but I’m going to try to buy his last game jersey if he doesn’t want it,” Black said. “Maybe you can write that [on PewterReport.com] so he can see it!”
Mission accomplished. Merry Christmas and hope you get what you want from Santa Claus this year, Ahmad.
FAB 2. Not only is Ahmad Black learning how to play the free safety position in the NFL from living legend Ronde Barber, he’s in line to replace him when the 16-year veteran decides to hang up his cleats, which could be as soon as next year due to the fact that the 37-year old only signed a one-year deal in the offseason. Black, a fifth-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, has shown a great deal of promise in his second season in the pro ranks and has become a starting free safety for Tampa Bay in dime defense when Barber moves to the slot cornerback spot.
Black also saw the majority of snaps at free safety last week as Barber was called on to play nickel cornerback due to injuries at the cornerback position and Eric Wright’s four-game suspension. For the year, Black has notched a 24 tackles, including a career-high seven tackles against Denver last week, three pass breakups, two interceptions and a forced fumble.
“You want to get your best guys on the field and Ahmad deserves his playing time,” said Barber, who has spent a good deal of time mentoring Black. “If I wasn’t around I’m sure he would be a very capable starter. It is what it is. It’s nice to have guys with instincts on the field. It makes your defense a little bit more complete.”
Black’s first year in the NFL did not go as planned as he suffered a high ankle sprain on his fourth play of his first NFL preseason game. That injury kept him out of the rest of the preseason games and prompted the Bucs to cut him and sign him to the team’s practice squad.
“Ahmad is one of my really good friends on the team,” Foster said. “He was a big-time player in college. He did have a bad injury in camp and he felt like he was doing good. We were pushing each other to see who was going to start, and it did set him back. He made it through and he’s got to keep getting better now.”
Black acknowledged how difficult it was to sit and watch his beloved Buccaneers while he was on the practice squad until later in the season.
“It was very difficult,” Black said. “I never had an injury that severe in my career. It bothered me for a little bit. Me coming from college where I was a starter to being drafted I was coming off a high. Then I got hurt and it put me on a low. It was devastating to me not to be on the active roster.
“This year I came back healthy and ready to play. My first game back on the active roster last year I started on every unit on special teams. So I got a lot of experience on special teams. Then I got some playing time on defense in the Panthers game and the Falcons game at the end of the season. That opened my eyes and showed me what the NFL was actually like, going against Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.”
Foster saw the progress Black made during the offseason pay off for him.
“He’s been working really hard since he got here in the OTAs,” Foster said. “He was making plays throughout camp and he’s just getting better every day. He has really great instincts. He’s always getting his hands on the football. He’s always around the ball. You need players like that.”
Black made his fair share of splash plays in the preseason, including his first interception, which was against New England’s legendary QB Tom Brady, which he returned to the 2-yard line, almost scoring his first NFL touchdown.
“I want to score every time I touch the ball,” Black said. “I don’t know if it’s like that with everybody, but I want to score whenever the ball is in my hands. That’s my mindset.”
Black had 15 pass breakups, 13 interceptions during his Florida career, including seven in 2008 and five as an All-American senior in 2010 – three of which were returned for touchdowns – three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Black’s first real pick in the NFL came in Week 1 against Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
“It’s an honor to be out there with great players,” Black said. “I just try to do my job in my role and what the team asks me to do, whether it is intercepting the ball, covering guys or making tackles.”
Black had a great game against Oakland in which he recorded five tackles, forced a fumble while stopping Darren McFadden on a fourth down fake punt, notched his second career interception and recovered a surprise onside kick. When Black was drafted by the Buccaneers there were instant comparisons between the 5-foot-9, 184-pound Gators star and the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Barber due to the fact that both players seem to have a knack for always being around the ball.
“He’s very aware,” Barber said of Black. “He’s very ball aware. I don’t know if he’s like me. He’s his own man. I don’t want to say that he’s like me … but I’m sure he doesn’t mind the Ronde Barber comparison.”
FAB 3. One of the most talked about topics in the Pewter Report Chats, which take place every Friday at 11:00 a.m. ET on PewterReport.com, is rookie running back Michael Smith. With Arrelious Benn on injured reserve and LeQuan Lewis missing Sunday’s game due to a knee injury, the Bucs will need a kick returner on Sunday when the team hosts Philadelphia.
Head coach Greg Schiano said Tiquan Underwood, who had a 39-yard return in the preseason, is being considered to fill that position, as is rookie Chris Owusu, who had three kickoff returns for touchdowns at Stanford, in addition to Smith. Smith finished the preseason as Tampa Bay’s second-leading rusher with 26 carries for 83 yards (3.2 avg.) with a long of 17 yards and also had four catches for 29 yards (7.3 avg.). But where he shined was as a kick returner, running back 10 kicks for 317 yards (31.7 avg.), including a 74-yarder against Miami.
After winning the starting kickoff return duties in the preseason, Smith looked hesitant in the 2012 season opener against Carolina where he returned three kickoffs for 55 yards, with a long of 23 yards.
“I’m waiting for that opportunity to return kicks again,” Smith said. “I just have to go out and practice. That’s all I can do. I’m just waiting.
“The coaches say I had a couple of very good preseason games. I ran hard and played well on special teams. I caught the ball well against the Patriots out of the backfield on third downs. It went well. I’m just waiting for my opportunity. The coaches say I’m doing well. I just keep working hard every day. I come out to practice and make plays in practice and I keep waiting for my opportunity.”
Smith knows a lot about being patient as he had to bide his time as a backup running back behind Robert Turbin at Utah State, who was one of the top 10 rushers in college football in 2011. Smith rushed for just 870 yards and nine touchdowns on 114 carries during his college career. He also caught 16 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
What got Smith drafted by the Buccaneers – aside from his 4.3 speed – is the fact that he ended his senior season strong, outrushing Turbin down the stretch and leading the Aggies to a bowl appearance. Smith’s best games came at the end of the season when he rushed for 121 yards on 18 carries against New Mexico State and 157 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.
“I didn’t get many opportunities at Utah State, but I made them count,” Smith said. “I just kept working hard because once I got in the lineup I knew I would make a play to stay in the game. As the season went on I got more and more reps and more and more playing time. I kept working hard it didn’t let the situation get to me. Like right, I can’t let not playing get to me. I have to keep working hard. Once my opportunity strikes I need to seize the moment.”
Smith knows that when he is once again active on Sundays, which could be this week if he is chosen to be the team’s kick returner, he will be better prepared to make things happen with his next opportunity.
“I just have to go to the next play,” Smith said. “Every play is not a home run. I just have to trust my technique and trust with the coaches teach you. I just have to run the ball as hard as I can and protect it.”
Of course the coach that Smith listens to the most is running backs coach Ernest Byner, whose NFL experience has proven invaluable to Smith’s development.
“I’m very grateful to have him help me,” Smith said. “He’s played in the league for a while and he’s coached a lot of great running backs. I’m just taking it all in and soaking it up like a sponge. He knows a lot of drills and a lot of things to help a running back and how to break down defenders. It’s great to have him there.
“Coach Byner has been working on my routes and my ability to catch the ball. Even when your gloves are soaking wet, you have to catch the ball and tuck it in. My vision is also getting a lot better in terms of me reading my blocks. Coach Byner is a great coach and I’m glad I have him.”
Perhaps the biggest thing that Byner has taught Smith since he’s been in the NFL is to wait for his next opportunity and remind him of how that worked out so well at Utah State.
“My weakness when I came here was probably just being patient,” Smith said. “Everybody wants to play. Nobody wants to stand on the sidelines. I sure don’t. I feel like if I’m not in the game there is less of a chance we’re going to win. But you have to play in the scheme and wait your turn.
“I’m staying humble and working hard,” Smith said. “My coaches just tell me to keep working hard and that’s what I’m doing.”
If that hard work doesn’t pay off this Sunday, it just might before the 2012 season is over.
FAB 4. As I wrote about three weeks ago, Bucs tight end Dallas Clark and Tampa Bay’s third wide receiver, Tiquan Underwood, would be stepping up down the stretch of the 2012 campaign while opposing defenses hone in on starting wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. That’s exactly what has happened over the past three weeks as quarterback Josh Freeman has been forced to look outside of his two primary playmakers on the outside of the offensive formation.
Jackson has been targeted 26 times by Freeman and has caught 14 passes for 245 yards and one score over the last three games. Williams has been targeted 27 times by Freeman’s passes over the three-week span and has hauled in 12 catches for 150 yards and one touchdown.
Meanwhile Clark has seen a spike in his production and has been targeted 20 times over the past three weeks, producing 14 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns and has outperformed Williams. Underwood has been targeted 17 times over the past three weeks, and with some combined errant throws and a few drops he has caught seven passes for 137 yards, including a career-high five-catch, 77-yard effort against Atlanta on November 25.
Even though Underwood mostly plays the slot receiver position in Tampa Bay, he said that the fact that either he or Clark can attack teams by being flanked out wide just as easy as Jackson and Williams can surprise teams in Mike Sullivan’s offense by being lined up in the slot.
“I just try to know all of the positions and be ready for when my number is called,” Underwood said. “Obviously, Mike and Vince are our starters, and as the guy behind them I just try to pay attention, learn from those guys and be ready.
“With the receivers we have there are no legitimate slot guys and outside guys. We’re trying to move guys around, so it’s better to move an entire offense and play wherever.”
Clark, who has spent his entire 10-year career lined up mostly as a flexed tight end playing slot receiver, appreciates the likes of legendary tight ends Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates leding the way for the undersized, 6-foot-3, 252-pounder.
“I’m just thankful that I came into a situation where Gates and Gonzalez paved the way for me to use my ability in this league,” Clark said. “If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have a job in this league because there is no way I could line up and block power or lead block. I’d be out of a job in a hurry because I would be horrible at it. It’s nice that the game is finding a way to use a guy like me and my abilities. Not many years ago it wasn’t like that. Fullbacks are becoming almost obsolete. A trend is definitely taking place.
“Now everyone’s looking for that receiving tight end. It’s special to see these guys come in because it’s hard. It’s not easy. You have to have a sprinkle of everything. You have to have some toughness. You have to have some ability. It’s not all glamorous out there trying to catch balls when you have grown men trying to kill you. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be sometimes.”
Clark will admit that he’s not the best in-line blocker, but that’s not why he was signed by Tampa Bay to replace Kellen Winslow.
“That’s what I love about the game by being as versatile as possible,” Clark said. “I would get a little bored if I had to block all day or do one thing. I like the variety. I like the mismatches. I like trying to see a safety and have that mismatch. It’s fun and exciting.”
Clark is having a good time, evidenced by the fact that he is playing an integral role in the offense these days. With two touchdowns over the past three games no one has played a bigger part in scoring on offense other than quarterback Josh Freeman. Expect him and Underwood to continue to get more looks in Tampa Bay’s versatile offense in the month of December as the Bucs’ 2012 season comes to close.
FAB 5. Here are a couple of things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• In last week’s SR’s Fab 5 we discussed how Bucs middle linebacker Mason Foster was a big fan of undrafted free agent cornerback Leonard Johnson, saying the Iowa State product plays like “an angry dog.” Consider Bucs legendary defensive back Ronde Barber a big supporter of Johnson’s, too.
“Leonard has a chip on his shoulder about not get drafted,” Barber said. “I like that. He’s done well for himself. I’m not surprised at his success. He showed it in camp. He’s a confident kid.”
• Buccaneers right tackle Demar Dotson said that rookie sensation Doug Martin makes it easy for his offensive linemen by using his speed and elusiveness to quickly get through the line of scrimmage.
“Doug is a fantastic player,” Dotson said. “You don’t have to hold the blocks too long for him. He makes a lot happen on his own. You just have to go out there and compete and he’s going to make stuff happen on his own as long as you stay on your guy for a second. That’s all he needs.”
• Not only did Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl XXXVII victory over Oakland thrill Ahmad Black when he was a young boy growing up in nearby Lakeland, Fla. Black lists several other memorable victories that he witnessed as a Buccaneers fan.
“I remember the 1997 season opener. They started out 5-0 that year and I was at the 49ers game,” Black said. “I came to the San Francisco 49ers game during the playoffs in 2002, too. I remember the great home games against the Rams on Monday Night Football and playing Green Bay on Monday night. I was talking to some of the guys around here about the Bert Emanuel catch in 1999 and how we should have probably gone to the Super Bowl that year, too. There are a lot of great memories.”
If you enjoyed this SR’s Fab 5 column, which is found on
PewterReport.com every Friday, we ask that you support our efforts here
and become a Pewter Insider subscriber. For just $10 per year you will
receive over 200 premium stories on PewterReport.com. Call
1-800-881-BUCS(2827) or subscribe online by clicking here.