Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard, the team’s first-round draft pick, took the practice field for the first time on Friday at Tampa Bay’s rookie mini-camp and made a few dazzling catches that showed why many teams had him rated as top 10 talent. Seeing Howard do his thing on game film is one thing, but watching him ditch defenders and make tough catches in person is quite another.
Many eyes were opened by Howard’s debut on the practice fields at One Buccaneer Place – except for those of running back Blake Sims, who already spent years watching the 6-foot-5 tight end develop at Alabama. Sims was a backup quarterback for the Crimson Tide behind A.J. McCarron and finally got an opportunity to start as a senior in 2014.
“He’s looking wonderful out here,” Sims said. “It’s great to have him here. I told him in the huddle, ‘It’s kind of weird looking at you this way. Usually I’m coming into the huddle looking at you in the eyes while I’m calling the play. Now I’m standing beside you.’ Now we’re talking about coverages and blocking.”
Bucs RB Blake Sims – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Sims, who completed 252-of-391 passes (64.5 percent) for 3,487 yards with 28 TDs and 10 INTs as Alabama’s starting quarterback in 2014, is trying to make it in the NFL as a running much, much like former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has done in Jacksonville.
“That’s the game plan for me,” Sims said. “It wasn’t that hard of a transition coming from quarterback to running back. I just had to get my footwork right and receiving the handoff rather than giving the handoff.”
At 5-foot-11, 218 pounds, there was no way Blake had any shot at playing quarterback in the NFL. Teams like the Bucs were more interested in his 705 rushing yards and nine touchdowns for the Crimson Tide than his passing yards. Sims rushed for 350 yards and seven TDs in 2014 in leading Alabama to the National Championship Game where the Crimson Tide lost 42-35 to Ohio State.
A hamstring injury at the NFL Scouting Combine contributed to a 4.57 time in the 40-yard dash. Sims said he has sub 4.5 speed, and that’s why the Bucs are interested in seeing what he can do as a running back. With a crowded backfield consisting of Doug Martin, Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims, Peyton Barber and now Jeremy McNichols, Tampa Bay’s fifth-round pick, Sims knows he has an uphill climb to win a roster spot. The best way he can do that is to perform well on special teams.
“I want to prove that I’m a team player,” Sims said. “I put the team before I put myself. I’m willing to do whatever is necessary to become a Buccaneer.”
Sims, who spent some time last year in Atlanta on the Falcons practice squad, was grateful to be included in the rookie mini-camp along with a few other Bucs players that aren’t true rookies, such as tight end Tevin Westbrook, fullback Quayvone Hicks and new wide receiver Derel Walker. Sims had gone through Tim Spencer’s running back drills before during this offseason and was showing the undrafted free agent running backs the ropes.
Sims also spent some time showing one of his favorite former Crimson Tide teammate around One Buccaneer Place.
“O.J.’s personality and his love of the game is what is different about him,” Sims said. “Sometimes when you’re tired and you don’t want to come out to practice, his body language is what’s different and it makes you want to be out here at practice.”
Alabama TE OJ Howard – Photo by: Getty Images
Sims admitted that he was surprised that Howard wasn’t featured more as a pass catcher in the Crimson Tide’s offense.
“I was surprised by a lot of things,” Sims said. “I was surprised he didn’t get the ball more, but he’s patient and that’s why great things came to him. He’s in the NFL and he’s a first-round pick, but blocking all the time definitely helped him. It did make him a complete tight end.
“O.J. spent more time learning the blocking schemes than he did learning how to catch the ball. He worked very hard in the weight room so he could become a blocker. He never kept track of how many balls he caught or yards he got. He always wanted to know how he blocked and he graded his game performance on his blocking rather than a big catch. I think that’s what makes him more valuable.”
Howard was a sophomore when Sims was a senior and caught just 17 passes for 260 yards (15.3 avg.) with a 53-yard reception against Ole Miss and a 47-yard catch at Arkansas.
“I didn’t throw him any touchdowns, but he got a lot of yards for me,” Sims said. “He caught a lot of deep balls for me and made a lot of big blocks.”
While Sims continues to learn the ropes as a Buccaneer running back, he hopes that head coach Dirk Koetter will allow him the opportunity to finally connect with Howard on a touchdown pass. As former college quarterback, Sims would be the ideal candidate to hit Howard down the field on a halfback pass.
“I certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity,” Sims said. “Let’s make it happen.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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