The competition at the quarterback position got started this week when the Buccaneers held three of their 14 organized team activities at One Buccaneer Place.

Bucs QB Chris Simms, who has 16 career starts under his belt and is entering his fifth season in head coach Jon Gruden’s offense, took the first-team snaps with the offense.

“I’ve been getting a good amount of first-team reps, but the way Coach Gruden does things this time of year we’re kind of all over the place,” said Simms. “Quarterbacks are in and out, wide receivers and running backs are in and out, linemen are in and out, so you’re going to mix and match with everybody.”

On Tuesday, Simms, who suffered a season-ending spleen injury in Week 3 last season, took the practice field sporting a helmet, jersey and cleats for the first time since September. He suggested he was healthy and his defensive teammates apparently tested him out by accidentally hitting him during Thursday’s workout.

“No ill effects,” Simms said of his Splenectomy. “I took a few hits today, too.

“I feel great. I’m just glad to be back out there with my teammates and the coaches. I had a little bit of rust, but this is why we practice in April – to get some of that rust off. I’m just excited for a new season.”

Simms, who turns 27 before the start of the regular season, has been anxious to get back onto the field, and it’s not just because of his absence due to injury. The former third-round draft pick had a disappointing start to the 2006 regular season.

Through three games, Simms completed just 54.7 percent of his passes for 585 yards and tossed one touchdown and seven interceptions. Tampa Bay’s offense also failed to score a touchdown in the first two games of the season.

Although they re-signed Simms to a two-year contract in December, the Buccaneers bolstered their quarterback spot this offseason by signing Jeff Garcia and trading for Jake Plummer.

However, when it comes to the competition at quarterback, Simms isn’t concerning himself with the play of anybody but himself.

“As far as who is starting and what not, I’m not worried about it. I’m really not,” said Simms. “The way I look at it is I’m in a competition with myself to see how good I can be.”

In the meantime, Garcia began digesting and executing Gruden’s complex playbook, which has some similarities to the West Coast offense he’s familiar with, but also has some significant differences.

“It’s nothing similar to what I’ve experienced in the West Coast offense,” said Garcia. “I think Coach Gruden has taken the West Coast offense and placed his own stamp on it. There are some similaraties, but he’s definitely taken it to another level.”

There are a few new wrinkles in Gruden’s playbook. Perhaps the most notable is the implementation of the shotgun formation, something Gruden had resisted in Tampa Bay until this year.

That’s something all of the team’s quarterbacks are getting used to, but all of Tampa Bay’s signal callers have prior experience working in the shotgun, and they are happy to see it.

“I’ve taken a few reps in the shotgun,” said Simms. “It really feels great. It’s a new feel and look for our offense. We can do a few new things out of that set. I’m excited about it.”

With Plummer semi-retired and Bruce Eugene playing in NFL Europe, the Bucs have Simms, Garcia, Bruce Gradkowski and Luke McCown taking reps at quarterback.

Gruden is slowly working the 37-year old Garcia into the rotation in an effort to get him mentally ready for training camp.

“I think Coach Gruden was very fair in how worked the reps this week,” said Garcia. “Chris had all of the first opportunities out there. He’s been the guy here and he has the knowledge of the system. I was brought in second or third at times. I was given a good amount of reps and given the opportunity to compete. I appreciate Coach Gruden putting me in there and letting me battle even though things aren’t necessarily as sharp mentally as I’d like them to be. I was still able to go in there and compete, so as far as that’s concerned it was a very positive camp.”

Garcia is scheduled to be married in a few weeks. While he won’t be at One Buccaneer Place as often as he’d like, Garcia will not miss any voluntary OTAs. He’ll also be taking plenty of mental reps between now and training camp.

“I’m not going to miss any of the OTAs,” said Garcia. “I’m going to be here for all of them. I’m not going to allow my wedding to necessarily take me away from my responsibilities with the team. I won’t be here on a day-to-day basis partaking in the offseason workout program, but I will be receiving meeting scripts and will know what they’re doing so I can stay on top of it.”

Let’s Make A Deal
Last year, Bucs rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski sported jersey No. 7. So when the Bucs signed free agent QB Jeff Garcia, who also wore No. 7 as a Philadelphia Eagle last season, there was a small predicament brewing at One Buccaneer Place.

That’s because Garcia sported No. 7 in the places he’s been successful, including the Canadian Football League and Philadelphia. Garcia even attempted to secure No. 7 when he was in San Francisco, but to no avail.

So with the help of Bucs head coach Jon Gruden and quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett, Gradkowski was recently persuaded into handing over No. 7 to the veteran signal caller and settling for No. 5, which was the jersey Garcia wore as a 49er.

“As much as I feel bad toward Bruce, it was one of those things where I wore No. 7 last year and I wore No. 7 in the past,” said Garcia. “It was something I was familiar and comfortable with. It’s not like I wanted to force a guy to give up his number. Coach Gruden, Coach Hackett and I talked about it and the switch was made.”

But before you feel too bad for Gradkowski, know that he’s swapping out No. 7 for jersey No. 5 and an undetermined number that will include a dollar sign in front of it.

“Bruce and I are working something out,” said Garcia. “He’s not giving it up for free, that’s for sure. But I wouldn’t expect him to do that.”

Bucs Taking The Field With A Different Attitude?
It’s only been three days of organized team activities, but the Buccaneers, who finished last season with a disappointing 4-12 record, are approaching the 2007 season much differently.

The players are determined to turn things around this season. That might be what stood out most to some players this week during Tampa Bay’s voluntary OTAs, which had an impressive turnout.

“I’ve heard about things in the past in terms of the offseason participation being so outstanding here,” said quarterback Jeff Garcia. “I think that’s what can lead to positive things on the football field.”

Several Bucs players and coaches noticed how the team was practicing and preparing with a sense of urgency, which is a welcome sign.

“I see it in everybody, from the quarterbacks to the defensive linemen to the kicker and punter,” said Bucs wide receiver Maurice Stovall. “Everyone has an extra pop in their step. We have a higher attendance of guys this offseason. You see a lot of guys here training and working out after practice. Guys are doing extra things in the weight room and staying longer in the meeting rooms trying to make a difference for this season.”

Bucs quarterback Chris Simms has also noticed a change in the team’s attitude and practice performance.

“I’ve noticed a big difference in these three days compared to the first three days last year,” said Simms. “The defense was flying around, and they were real aggressive. Like I said, they hit me a few times today. The offense is disappointed with everything we did last year. We didn’t throw the ball well, we didn’t run well and we didn’t block well. We realize that if we want to take it to the next level we’ve got to improve those things.”

Stovall Welcomes Competition
Near the end of the 2006 season, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden suggested rookie wide receiver Maurice Stovall would spend his second season grooming behind WR Joey Galloway, who plays the X (split-end) spot in Gruden’s offense.

Stovall, who spent his rookie season cross-training at a number of different receiver spots, hasn’t made the permanent switch just yet.

“I’m working out of all of the receiver spots,” said Stovall. “A lot of the older guys move around a lot, too. You have to know a lot of different spots because you can move around a lot in this offense, so that’s what we’ve been working on.”

Stovall welcomes competition, and Tampa Bay’s current stable of wide receivers certainly has it. It features Galloway, Michael Clayton, Stovall, Ike Hilliard, David Boston, among others.

The Bucs might even add more competition at wide receiver later this month. A significant amount of pundits believe the Bucs will use the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft to select Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson.

Stovall suggested Thursday that he’d welcome a player with Johnson’s ability and credentials.

“Anytime you have a lot of talent and a guy coming in with a lot of talent he can make you a better receiver, can help you mature and can help you step your game up,” said Stovall. “I would look forward to working with him and learning from him, and working with him as a teammate.”

Of course, there’s always a chance the Bucs could go in another direction with their first-round pick, particularly at quarterback, where Stovall’s ex-teammate, QB Brady Quinn, could be an option for Gruden, who loves working with quarterbacks.

Stovall doesn’t know if he’ll be reunited with Quinn, but he does believe his former teammate is one of the best players entering this year’s NFL Draft.

“Brady is an ex-teammate of mine, and I wish him all the best,” said Stovall. “Of course he’ll go in the first round, but I think he could go in the first three picks. I’ve seen him grow, and he’s gotten better each year. He’s matured a lot. I think he’s handing all of the exposure very well. I wish him all the best. Whatever team he goes to I’m sure that team will be pleased.”

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