Tampa Bay’s offensive line is a work in progress, but Bucs head coach Jon Gruden likes what he has seen from this unit in training camp thus far.

The Bucs have been toying with their offensive line ever since Gruden and offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Muir arrived in Tampa Bay in 2002.

Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl with a makeshift offensive line in ’02, but this unit has been inconsistent ever since.

The Bucs have attempted to address their offensive line through free agency and the NFL Draft.

However, free agents like tackles Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese, and draft picks like tackles Chris Colmer (third round) and Lance Nimmo (fourth round) and center Austin King (fourth round) have come and gone, qualifying them as busts.

The jury is still out on offensive linemen Dan Buenning (fourth round) and Jeb Terry (fifth round), but it doesn’t look like either one of them is going to crack the starting lineup, and there’s no guarantee they even make the 53-man roster this season.

Despite their past failures in terms of addressing the offensive line, the Bucs are feeling pretty good about two second-year players – G Davin Joseph and T Jeremy Trueblood, who were selected in the first and second round, respectively of the 2006 NFL Draft.

In April, the Bucs invested a second-round pick in G Arron Sears, who could win the starting left guard job as early as this season.

“Well, Sears – he’s as advertised,” said Gruden. “He’s got some real power. He’s got some real football instincts, and that’s hard to find in a player. We’re really excited about Sears. But again – you don’t’ want to give these guys too much praise because normally they have a lousy practice the next day.”

Tampa Bay feels its offensive line can finally be a force to reckon with in both the running game and passing game.

Of course, this unit’s success likely will be contingent on a few things, including how the battle at center between John Wade, Matt Lehr and Buenning shakes out.

It could also be dependent upon on the health of T Luke Petitgout, who was signed during the offseason after being released by the New York Giants.

Petitgout, 31, received a three-year, $15 million deal that included a $3 million signing bonus. The Bucs, in return, expect Petitgout to anchor the left side of the offensive line and protect quarterback Jeff Garcia’s blindside.

But Petitgout hasn’t been able to do that over the past few days. He’s missed three straight practices due to a “sore body.” That has some concerned since Petitgout has battled a back and knee injury in recent years.

But when he has been on the field the Bucs have liked what they’ve seen from Petitgout. The Bucs planned to have him return to practice on Thursday morning, but inclement weather prevented that from happening.

Instead, the Bucs expect Petitgout to return to practice on Friday.

“He’s missed three practices, but I expect to see Luke tomorrow,” Gruden said on Thursday. “I think he’s okay. It would have been a good day to see him out here practicing. But given the weather the way it was we felt giving him the morning off and getting ready to roll into the weekend was the right thing to do.”

One player that has had his reps increased thanks to Petitgout’s absence is second-year T Donald Penn.

According to Gruden, the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Penn has been making the most of his opportunities in camp.

“I don’t like to give him too much praise,” Gruden said of Penn. “These offensive linemen can’t handle public praise. But he’s taking a lot of reps. He’s doing a good job. He’s got my attention. He’s doing a good job, but he’s not a finished product yet.”

While Anthony Davis, who is also competing for a starting job at left guard, has been taking the first-team reps at left tackle in place of Petitgout, Penn is a player the Bucs believe could add some depth and versatility to their roster this season.

“He’s a young player,” Gruden said of Penn. “I’m really pleased with his pass protection. He’s getting more physical in the running game. We’d like to see a little more thump. But he’s playing right and left tackle. If he’s not the starter, we need a guy who can be a swing tackle, and certainly he’s in the mix there”

Tampa Bay’s offense finished the 2006 season ranked 29th overall and 28th in the running game. It scored just 20 touchdowns in 16 regular season games.

The Bucs feel the addition of a proven veteran quarterback in Garcia and the return of a healthy Cadillac Williams will help the offensive line improve.

But for the first time in a long time, the Bucs also believe the offensive line is poised to help itself.

“They’re really making progress,” said Gruden. “Joseph has had days where he’s really been stellar, and Trueblood is getting better. He’s a big, tall guy. Getting comfortable in that stance last year was a real challenge in its own right. He’s doing a great job. He and Davin are doing a much better job on the right side against stunts, against premier guys and handling the audible system and the snap count.

“I’m really pleased with Sears. We’re excited about what Donald Penn is doing and [Anthony Davis] has been a guy who has played three different positions and done some good things. We’re very pleased with Petitgout, although we’d like to get him out here soon.”


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