Wide receiver Maurice Stovall ended his career at Notre Dame ranked fourth in Irish history in receptions (130). But the third-round draft pick has yet to officially make a big impact in his career with the Bucs.

A regular fixture on the team’s injury report, the 6-foot-5 rookie doesn’t seem to be showing much progress in recovering from a back injury that has kept him out of the Tampa Bay line up most of the season.

On Thursday, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden did not express much optimism when asked about Stovall’s progress.

“It’s slowed down,” Gruden said. “His development is very slow right now. He’s got a sore back and he’s been inactive a lot here the last few weeks. But he is a great kid with a lot of talent and we're counting on him. But he has got to get healthy so he can compete and contribute to our team.”

Returning from injury is something fellow receiver, Ike Hilliard, can sympathize with. Hilliard, who was taken by the New York Giants with the seventh overall pick in the 1997 draft, dealt with a toe injury,  a dislocated shoulder and a sprained ligament in his back while with the Giants.

He was acquired by the Bucs as a free agent in 2005 and re-signed with the team during the 2006 offseason.  Sunday’s game will mark Hilliard first return to the Meadowlands to face his former team.

“It’s just another game,” Hilliard said. “I don’t have any ill will toward the city. As far as the organization I’d be a fool if I did. That was eight years of my life.”

In eight seasons with New York, Hilliard caught 27 touchdowns and accumulated 4,630 yards in receptions. In the 2000 NFC Championship Game against Minnesota, Hilliard broke the Giants’ post-season receptions record, hauling in 10 catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns.

“I had an okay career,” Hilliard said. “I missed a lot of ball due to injuries. You know I’m sure everybody will have their own opinion about me, I’m sure being a seventh overall pick. I still played nine years after one of the toughest injuries ever to come back from. I’m blessed to still be around the game. It will be good to see the guys and organization.”

Bucs head coach Jon Gurdon said the team was emotionally charged during Thursday’s practice. In order to simulate crowd noise, players were treated to loud music during drills, not an uncommon practice before away games. Appropriately enough, the speakers were blasting Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Born to Run.”

The Boss (Springsteen, not Gruden) is from New Jersey.

“We had a little juice going today, there’s no question,” Gruden said. “We’re fired up and we should be. This is a great opportunity for us to win three straight games.”

Gruden spoke about his admiration for the Giants offensive weapons, using the term “top flight players” to describe players such as running back Tiki Barber, tight end Jeremy Shockey, wide receiver Plaxico Burress and quarterback Eli Manning.

As for the Giants’ emerging defense, it has produced 13 sacks over the last two games, three of which have come from defensive end Osi Umenyiora. A name that didn’t roll off Gruden’s tongue so easily.

“I can’t pronounce the right defensive end’s name,” he said. “He’s a guy maybe people would talk more about if they could say his name right. He’s really something, that guy. He’s got a great motor.”

Defensive tackle Ellis Wyms missed Thursday’s practice with a sore ankle. Gruden anticipated he may be able to practice Friday and said he is still listed as questionable for Sunday’s game.

Bucs tight end Anthony Becht (foot), CB Juran Bolden (hip)  wide receiver/punt returner Mark Jones (hamstring), linebacker Shelton Quarles (knee), DE Simeon Rice and WR Maurice Stovall (back) are listed as questionable.

Quarterback Chris Simms (Splenectomy) is out.

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