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The Buccaneers had big plans for Dan Buenning when they used a fourth-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft to select him out of Wisconsin. However, Buenning has gone from being a starter in his first two seasons as a Buc to spending the first half of the 2007 season on the bench.
Although Tampa Bay invested its third-round selection in offensive tackle Chris Colmer that year, it was Buenning that made an immediate impact and worked his way into the starting lineup as a rookie.
Buenning started all 16 regular season games and one playoff contest as a rookie and made his mark as a run blocker, where he opened up running lanes for then-rookie running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and earned NFL Rookie of the Year honors in 2005.
While his goal was to become a better left guard and help the Bucs build on their 2005 NFC South division championship, those plans were put on hold during the 2006 preseason finale when he suffered a sprained ankle, which kept him out of the regular season opener.
Buenning was never 100 percent recovered from that ankle injury, and just as he began to find his rhythm he suffered a season-ending torn ACL against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day.
Tampa Bay was interested in upgrading its center position during the 2007 offseason. While Buenning still was recovering from the knee injury, which required surgery, Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden and offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Muir decided to move him from guard to center to compete with John Wade for the starting job.
If healthy, the Bucs felt the 6-foot-4, 320-pound Buenning could add size and athleticism to the center position.
But two key obstacles hindered Buenning's ability to beat out the 33-year-old Wade (6-5, 299) for the starting job in training camp and preseason. First, Buenning had played guard his entire football career, so the center position was quite foreign to him.
"It was a challenge I embraced," Buenning said of making the transition from guard to center. "The big thing is snapping the ball before you do anything. That was a big adjustment for me because I don't think I had touched a ball during my whole time of playing football."
Second, Buenning's rehab and knee injury kept him out of organized team activities and he wasn't quite 100 percent healthy when training camp rolled around.
"I don't want to make excuses, but it definitely was a factor in the ultimate decision to go with John," Buenning said of his knee injury and rehab. "You can go on these things and play early and you never know what could happen. Something might have gone wrong or my knee could have gotten worse if the Bucs would have started me. You never really know. That might have factored into the equation."
Not only did he not win the starting job, Buenning has been inactive for Tampa Bay's first nine regular season games after starting 23 of the first 25 contests he played in as a Buccaneer.
"John is playing well," said Buenning. "I'm learning and trying to make the transition and just do whatever I can to help our team right now."
Thursday will mark the one-year anniversary of Buenning's knee injury. The Bucs feel he's made a significant amount of progress from a health standpoint and as a player, where is rep distribution has been about even at guard and center.
"His progress is an ongoing thing," Muir said of Buenning. "I think it's obvious that he's not where he was and I hope he's not where he's going to be. I feel like he's coming along. You know we only dress seven offensive linemen on game day. He is on the active roster. I am at a point in time in my opinion that if we had an injury and we had to make a move, he's closer to going in and being the Dan Buenning we know than maybe he was four weeks ago.
"No question about it. He's made some real progress. Do I want to see more? Sure, but I also want to win the lottery this week."
While they wish they could have seen more of him in training camp and preseason, the Bucs still believe Buenning, 26, could challenge for the starting center job in 2008, which is when Wade and backup center Matt Lehr are both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
However, replacing Wade's experience could be tough for the Bucs to do. He's started 99 of the 113 games he's played in with Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. The aging veteran sometimes struggles to win battles in the trenches, but Wade still has the ability to recognize blitzes and make important calls at the line of scrimmage.
Wade is also part of an offensive line that has managed to help the Bucs rank 15th in the NFL in rushing yards despite the fact that the team has been without their top two running backs for most of the season.
"I can't say all of that now," Gruden said when asked if Buenning at found a home at the center position. "If Wade keeps doing what he's doing maybe we'll double his salary. I don't care who the center is as long as we have a good center. I know this – we're getting better up front and John Wade has been stellar in terms of his recognition and communication. The way this league operates you've got to make seven or eight calls in every game that are going to determine how your pass protection fits. Wade has been much better this year than he has in previous years because he's playing next to two good guards [in Arron Sears and Davin Joseph].
"I'm not going to get into Dan Buenning's situation until we see him. All I can say is it's humiliating that we've lost guys like Buenning, [quarterback] Simms, Cadillac and [wide receiver Michael] Clayton because we were planning on building around them. Losing all four of them is a setback, but we're proud of the guys that have stepped up."
While Gruden wants to see more of Buenning before he makes a full –and perhaps more fair – evaluation, Muir suggested Buenning has shown enough to make the team believe he can work his way back into the starting lineup. With the Bucs having first- and second-round draft picks invested in Joseph and Sears, respectively, it appears as though Buenning's best chance of playing next year could be at center.
"I don't think it's an issue," Muir said of Buenning's ability to play center. "It's just going and getting familiar with the position. One of the reasons why he wasn't in any team stuff in the OTAs is because he wasn't allowed to be in any of the team stuff because of where he was in terms of recovering from his surgery. You have to get comfortable at it, and he's comfortable at it. He can certainly handle the mental aspect of the position, which is very challenging. I don't have any problems with him at center or guard and I think he can do either."
Buenning intends on proving Muir right if and when he's given the opportunity to take over Tampa Bay's center position next year.
"I definitely expect to compete for a starting job next year," said Buenning. "Things change from year to year. I think I can build on what I did at center last year. I'm not sure what will end up happening with John's situation, but I'll take whatever shot I can get here."
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