The quiet confidence coming from this season’s wide receiving corps is centered on Ike Hilliard and his workmanlike attitude. Hilliard isn’t a boisterous kind of player and doesn’t possess the physical gifts like size and speed that many of the top receivers in the NFL have. What he does have is the knack for getting open and making the big catch on third down to keep drives alive.
Of Hilliard’s 34 receptions last season, 15 of those catches were on third down and 14 of the 34 were in the fourth quarter. Hilliard understands that he has a role on this team and accepts that he’s no longer the No. 1 option in the passing game. Although he is quiet by nature, Hilliard’s voice seems to be heard the loudest when the Bucs need a crucial reception.
“I can only speak for myself, but I had an eight-year run in New York where I was a starter so I know about the ball distribution and I’ve had my time in that limelight as a starter,” Hilliard said. “I know when I signed here that I had a role to fill and at the end of the day we have to get the ball to the guy that’s going to get us going and that’s [wide receiver] Joey [Galloway]. Hopefully he catches 130 balls this season because that means we are winning a lot of football games. Then from there, where ever the quarterback makes the reads than so be it, that guy needs to make a play.”
With Galloway receiving so much attention down field the last four seasons, head coach Jon Gruden has been trying to find a consistent receiver to put opposite of Galloway. Since the beginning of training camp, Gruden has hinted with his comments that Hilliard could be that player. Hilliard’s route-running and ability to consistently catch the football are qualities that are shining brightly in Gruden’s eyes.
“There’s Ike Hilliard again, I keep talking about Ike Hilliard and nobody else does,” Gruden said. “That’s why Ike Hilliard is one of my favorite guys. He doesn’t drop the football and he runs all the routes and makes plays. One of the things that we are going to heavily scrutinize when it’s all said and done is who can catch a ball and make the great catch. Forget about the routine catch where the ball is laid right in there, I’m talking about the freak catch away from your body, the ones you see on Sports Center every Sunday night and that’s what we need here.”
Gruden’s comments about Hilliard came after a practice in which virtually every receiver except for Hilliard and Joey Galloway, who didn’t suit up for the morning session, experienced at least one dropped pass.
During Hilliard’s tenure with the New York Giants, he teamed with Amani Toomer as a deadly one-two punch that helped lead the Giants to the Super Bowl. In six seasons where Hilliard played in at least 13 games, he averaged more than 55 receptions in those seasons.
Hilliard, however, isn’t worried about his stats as much as he is in helping the Bucs win games, getting back to the playoffs and being a reliable teammate. Despite being overshadowed his entire career, Hilliard’s main concern is making plays when the ball comes his way.
“It’s been an interesting career for me from being No. 7 overall in 1997 and had a little battle with injuries here or there,” Hilliard said. “Whether I’m overshadowed it really doesn’t matter. I just think earning the trust of my teammates when I’m on the field I want to say is what is keeping me around as long as I’ve been playing. They know where I’m going to be and know I’m going to make a play.”
As Hilliard enters his 11th season in the NFL and third year with the Bucs, his motivation still remains the same as it was in his rookie season with the Giants. He got a taste of the Super Bowl with New York in 2000, but was turned away from a championship by the Baltimore Ravens. Hilliard wants to get back to the Super Bowl to be able to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy in the air.
“I still feel that I’m relatively young even though I’ve played 11 years and I just want to be apart of the 53,” Hilliard said. “I had my one opportunity in Tampa, went to the Super Bowl and we didn’t close the door. I would like to close that door and get that ring and I think at the end of the day that’s what we are all shooting for.”
KIFFIN DISCUSSES LANE’S ILLNESS
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s son, Lane, was hospitalized with a viral infection on Monday and will be receiving treatments for the infection. Lane, 32, who was named the Oakland Raiders coach this season, had been sick for the past couple of days and wasn’t getting any better, a team spokeperson said.
Lane Kiffin coached in the Raiders first preseason game, a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals despite feeling ill. He cancelled a scheduled conference call with reporters on Sunday and wasn’t at Raiders practice on Monday.
“He’s going to be all right,” Monte Kiffin said. “He will be in there for a couple of days supposedly they are running some tests, but he should be okay. He’s actually been sick for four or five days, he didn’t even know if he going to coach the game, but he sucked it up and coached. But after the game they had to take him to the hospital, but he’ll be all right. He’s a tough guy.”
Lane Kiffin, a former offensive coordinator at USC, became the youngest coach in NFL history when he was hired to replace Art Shell.
QUARTERBACKS GOING DEEP
During Tuesday morning’s practice, quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Luke McCown were working on their deep throws down the sideline. McCown displayed some of his arm strength, throwing nice tight spirals more than 30 yards down field in the air. Garcia wasn’t as impressive, but was just as accurate with his deep passes.
Garcia has never been known for his arm strength and stretching a defense with his downfield pass attempts. However, Garcia will need to show that he can go deep down field to loosen up tight coverages, especially against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who the Bucs will play Saturday.
The frustrating part about the deep pass patterns for Gruden was the amount of dropped balls by the receivers. Wide receiver David Boston, running back Cadillac Williams and tight end Jerramy Stevens each dropped passes from McCown, who hit them right in the hands and in stride.
“It’s unfortunate we had three or four dropped balls on some big plays today,” Gruden said. “We did that last year in games and I’m a big believer that what you see in practice is what you are going to see in games. Unfortunately today is not what I want to be associated with nor do I want our players have to go through that. We have to make those plays and that’s just the bottom line.”
GETTING SOME ONE-ON-ONE TIME
Gruden threw a curveball on Tuesday midway through practice when he had the offensive and defensive lines going one-on-one against each other. The defense pulled out the competition 4-3 and received a prize that many of the players cherish during training camp.
“An hour extra curfew so these guys will be able to have extra time to play another round of pool in the lobby,” Gruden said.
There were some interesting match-ups during the one-on-one drill that drew a lot of whooping and hollering from the players and the fans. Defensive end Kevin Carter matched up with right guard Davin Joseph and beat the second-year offensive lineman with a nice swim move. Defensive end Greg White, who was recently signed from the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League, battled right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and beat him with a bull rush move.
The next three went to the offensive line as left guard Arron Sears beat defensive tackle Jovan Haye, center Matt Lehr defeated defensive tackle Ellis Wyms and left tackle Donald Penn took out rookie defensive end Gaines Adams.
After defensive end Patrick Chukwurah used his speed to get by left tackle Anthony Davis, it all came down to rookie linebacker Quincy Black against tight end Alex Smith. With curfew on the line, Black used a mix of a bull rush move and then a swim move to get by Smith for the victory.
“Two areas we have obviously emphasized, outside some of others, are our pass rush and our pass protection,” Gruden said. “So it was nice to put the red light on a guy in front of his teammates and the crowd down there late in training camp when guys are exhausted, physically and mentally, it’s a true test. I thought it spiced up the practice a little bit today and obviously the defense won the drill 4-3.”
GIVING PRACTICE SOME RHYTHM
For the second consecutive day, Gruden has allowed music to be played during stretching for the morning and afternoon practice, and for the offensive line sled drill in the morning. Gruden has tried to give practice somewhat of a relaxed feel at the beginning to motivate his players.
As the final days of training camp begin to count down, Gruden realized that he needed to add some spice to practice. Even though Gruden is all business when it comes to practice, he felt the players deserve to have a little fun before practice.
“Every time I got out to stretch during pre-game there’s always music and it’s always loud and some guys don’t like and some guys do,” Gruden said. It’s really late in camp so we are trying every way we can to stimulate our men and have a little fun in the process. This is one of the greatest times in our life playing football and coaching football and being together. So we are just trying to finish training camp with some creativity. This is not a party atmosphere here certainly, but we are just trying to liven things up a little bit. Get the snap count squared away in the noise because it’s going to be incredibly loud at the beginning of the season.”
The music selection has varied over the past two days from Boyz II Men to Heavy D on Monday to Saliva and AC/DC on Tuesday. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin even had a little fun with the defensive unit on Monday when he broke out in a dance during Motownphilly, a Boyz II Men song that was popular in the early 1990s.
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