Larry Brackins was considered a project when he entered the 2005 NFL Draft out of Pearl River Community College, and the Buccaneers treated him as such after they used one of their two fifth-round draft picks to select the 6-foot-4, 205-pound wide receiver.

Brackins displayed impressive athleticism and playmaking ability at the JUCO level, but Tampa Bay also knew that the young receiver was raw and needed plenty of work.

The Bucs were excited about Brackins’ potential last year, but that excitement was dampened in June when the receiver tore his hamstring, which sidelined him for most of training camp and preseason. Despite missing so much playing time, Brackins managed to make Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster, but he was released on Sept. 6 and signed onto the team’s practice squad the next day.

Although he did make some amazing plays in practice, the practice squad was where Brackins would spend the remainder of his rookie season, which was essentially deemed a redshirt year.

It’s been almost one year since Brackins suffered the torn hamstring, and inquiring Bucs fans want to know how much progress the “project” from Pearl River has made since recovering from that injury.

“He’s made great strides,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Brackins. “We knew he had a long way to go when we drafted him. He’s gotten better in every area, but he’s still got a long way to go in every area, too. There’s quite a distance that he needs to cover to be an every down threat and football player in this league. He still has natural talent, but it’s the decisiveness, the instincts, the reliability and consistency that we need to see tremendous improvement in.”

When Tampa Bay’s season ended abruptly with a home playoff loss to Washington in January, Brackins said the Bucs coaching staff told him to use the offseason to focus on improving one particular aspect of his game.

“They really just told me to get the plays down,” said Brackins. “Everything else was coming along, so I was just focusing on trying to get the plays down. I feel like I have the plays down now, so I’m ready to play full speed this year. I missed a lot of training camp last year, so I’m really going to try to make a big impact in training camp this year.”

The Bucs have added some serious competition at the wide receiver position. In addition to having Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard practically guaranteed active roster spots in 2006, several other receivers, including third-round pick Maurice Stovall, Edell Shepherd, Mark Jones, Paris Warren and J.R. Russell will be competing with Brackins for what could be as little as two remaining 53-man roster spots.

Not only do they want him to learn his playbook, the Bucs need Brackins to show more consistency on the practice field in his second season.

“I guess you could say it’s frustrating,” Gruden said of Brackins’ inconsistent showing as a rookie. “You’re not allowed to make errors. You have to be consistent. You can’t make a splash play and then have four bad plays. We get hurt bad when you make a mistake. If you miss a block, you miss the snap count, you miss an audible, it gets ugly. He’s got to become an overall master of this offense. He’s got time to do that, and he is working.”

After taking time to reflect on his rookie season, Brackins admittedly said he had a difficult time making the transition from the JUCO level to the NFL.

“It wasn’t that big of an adjustment for me talent-wise,” Brackins said. “Learning the playbook and reading the coverages was difficult for me coming here from the JUCO league last year. It can be done. I’m just working hard on it.”

One of the reasons why Brackins managed to survive the trials and tribulations of his rookie season was because of the help and support he received from some of his teammates.

“They were all mentors to me last year,” Brackins said of his fellow receivers, including Galloway, Clayton and Hilliard. “They never hesitated to help me when I asked for it or when they saw that I needed it. Even [cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly] helped me out with running routes. All of those guys have really helped to bring me along.”

After spending his rookie season on Tampa Bay’s practice squad, Brackins is eager to get on the field again for games. He’s even hoping to be given the opportunity to make an impact as a return specialist, which was an area he excelled in at the JUCO level.

“I’ve been catching some balls, so I hope they give me a shot at returning punts or kickoffs,” said Brackins.

But according to Gruden, Brackins must first show that he’s capable of being a productive player in his offense on a consistent basis before the Bucs will consider taking a look at him as a return specialist.

“He’s got the talent to do that, but I’m not sure that is where we’re headed at this stage,” Gruden said of Brackins being a return specialist. “Right now he’s got to concentrate on being a split-end in this offense. That’s where he’s going to find his niche initially. After that, if we can get creative with him maybe we will.”

Brackins will have to make an impact on special teams in order to make the active roster this year, but not as a return man. Like all of their backup receivers, the Bucs need Brackins to cover punts and kickoffs if he hopes to be made active on game days.

Playing special teams apparently is something Brackins knows the importance of and is eager to do.

“I love special teams,” said Brackins. “I can do just about anything there – returns, block, play flyer, cover kicks and punts – whatever. Special teams will really be my key to making this team this year.”

Once he shows his coaches that he’s got the playbook understood and out of the way, Brackins plans to have his athleticism and playmaking ability take over on the football field, which is exactly what allowed him to be a productive player at Pearl River Community College and what the Bucs expect him to start doing as a member of their active roster this year.

“I’m not having to think about everything,” said Brackins. “Now I’m able to just go out and play. I know the system, and that’s allowing me to go out there and play and have fun. That’s the big difference for me now. With me not playing last year, I was able to work with [Bucs wide receivers coach Richard] Mann and learn so much about football in terms of how to run routes and stuff like that. I think this year will be a good one for me.”


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