‘Tis the season for players to emerge out of the shadows and showcase their abilities and mental toughness. To state their case as to why they should make the final 53-man roster.
Kareem Huggins is one of those players. As an undrafted rookie from Hofstra University, Huggins enters the Bucs presesason behind a plethora of backs — Earnest Graham, Derrick Ward, Cadillac Williams and Clifton Smith — all of who have established themselves as NFL material.
This isn't unfamiliar territory for Huggins. He's had to overcome adversity numerous times throughout his football career, including last year when he didn't hear his name called in the NFL Draft.
"I didn't know what was going to happen. I just believed in God that I'd be somewhere and I just continued to work hard and believed things were going to work out," said Huggins. "It may have been a little disheartening after the draft, but here I am now."
It all started at five years old in the parks of Irvington, New Jersey where Huggins' dad, Darrell Huggins, would take his son to play against kids twice his size and age.
"I always knew speed killed, but I wanted to make him a stronger player. I would bet money that he'd beat the big kids … and he would," said Darrell. "He's like a lion, he never stops."
Bucs head coach Raheem Morris has seen the lion in Huggins on the football field.
"He has a YouTube video running a 4.32 [40-yard dash time]. He's fast and he works harder than anybody I know," said Morris, who has kept a close eye on Huggins throughout his entire career.
"I knew about Kareem Huggins. He played on my dad's Pop-Warner team. He played right after me on the Golden Knights, but he went to private school because he was really talented. I followed him through that part, and then he came to Hofstra right after I was there."
Under the direction of Hofstra head coach Dave Cohen, Huggins rushed 428 times for 2,178 yards and 21 touchdowns. It wasn't his numbers that captured coaches, but his leadership.
"He was a silent leader who led by example," said Kahmal Roy, wide receivers coach at Hofstra. "He makes [his hard working mentality] contagious for the new players and those vying for a spot, to come out and do it the right way."
Cut from the same mold, Morris knew what he was getting when he signed Huggins, and Huggins knew what he was getting from Coach Morris.
"He's a Hofstra guy. So having him as a coach, I knew he expects a lot out of me," said Huggins. "At Hofstra, we expect a lot out of our guys. Coming from Division I-AA, you don't know what guys in Div. I-A are doing so you're trying to outwork them and try to get where you want to be in one game. I try to do a lot with each play I get because he expects a lot out of me."
Living in the shadows of Graham, Ward and Williams, it's hard to fathom how he'll make the final roster, but Buc fans, don't forget a similar story that emerged last season.
Smith was an undrafted rookie who didn't stand a chance at making the active roster. He was placed on the eight-man practice squad and later called upon mid-season to be the return man for a tattered Bucs team. Smith went on to become the first Buccaneers kick returner to ever be selected to the Pro Bowl and just the second rookie since Warrick Dunn in 1997.
"[Kareem] has the quick cuts like Clifton," said Ward when asked if Huggins mirrors Smith in any way. "He's a hard-nosed runner. For such a small guy, he's got a lot of power."
Bucs running backs coach Steve Logan loves having a guy like Huggins in his backfield.
"He's got a great football IQ. He understands the game so he's fun to teach because he absorbs things so quickly. On the physical side of things, I think he can run for forever and ever. His endurance is remarkable," said Logan.
Huggins holds all the intangibles it takes to be a great NFL running back, but like Smith did a year ago, he's got to make his mark on special teams in order to make it to Sunday.
"Just as Earnest Graham and Clifton Smith did, the first thing a guy like that has to do is make sure he's a good hand for Coach Bisaccia on special teams, that's number one," said Logan. "That's where people in his position get it done. They've got to go special teams and then the opportunity presents itself and they produce."
In his debut appearance in red and pewter against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday, Huggins surprised everyone and rushed for 43 yards on nine carries, the most of all the backs that night. But his performance wasn't surprising for Coach Morris.
"He's from Hofstra, he's making it," said Morris when asked about Huggins' emergence. "The guy comes in at a freebie tryout and we beg to sign him because of the effort. You see him finish every play, he runs to the end zone. I tell him to go 25 [yards] and he completely blows my coaching, but I'm okay with that. Then he gets to the game and I look at him and say, 'Hey, do I need to get you out of there and put in someone else?' ‘No, I'm good coach.' You talk about a man playing. He loves football. I can't get him out of the building. That's the kind of guy you want on your team."
The NFL is a special, shared experience for Huggins and his dad. Their strong faith and belief in God has taken their dream and made it a reality.
"I led him to the water and he drank it and it has been history ever since," said Darrell.
History is still in the making. There are three preseason opponents left for Huggins — the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans — before his fate is decided.
Will he play for the Bucs on Sundays? Nobody knows, but for now Huggins says he's resting on the guidance from his favorite chapter of the Bible, "Proverbs 3," to help him come out and work hard everyday.