Copyright 2008

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Under hot and humid conditions with temperatures in the 90’s, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held their last organized team activity of the offseason on Thursday. The Bucs will hold their mandatory, three-day mini-camp next week. With University of South Carolina head football coach and former Bucs quarterback Steve Spurrier in attendance, the Bucs had one of their most intense OTA practices of the offseason.

As the players came out, Spurrier was speaking with Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden and former Gators and Bucs linebacker legend Scot Brantley. There were a few former Florida Gators that Spurrier coached in his time in Gainesville. Ike Hilliard and Kevin Carter stopped by Spurrier to exchange hugs and talk for a few minutes. Tight end Ben Troupe (Florida) and rookie running back Cory Boyd (South Carolina) were among the Bucs players who also played under Spurrier in college.

Not in attendance for Thursday’s OTA were wide receiver Joey Galloway, cornerback Ronde Barber, quarterback Chris Simms, and running back Earnest Graham. Cornerback Sammy Davis was present but was only observing the workout. Boyd and wide receiver Cortez Hankton were doing some physical therapy and rehab work inside and did not participate in practice. After warming up and stretching, the players split off into their position groups.

During the individual unit drills, second-year guard Chris Denman really stood out. Denman, who was a seventh-round pick out of Fresno State last year, looked stiff and rigid during the 2007 training camp before winding up on injured reserve. This year, Denman looks much more fluid and athletic with his movements. Sources tell Pewter Report that he’s not simply a camp body and that he is a guard-tackle option that is challenging Anthony Davis for a roster spot this season.

In the individual quarterback and running back period, the Bucs were working on their running game from the shotgun formation. Thursday seemed to be the appropriate day for that given the fact that Spurrier was in attendance and has always favored the shotgun in his college and pro offenses. One of quarterback Jeff Garcia’s cadence counts was rattled off in Spanish, which was different to hear out on the football field.

Tampa Bay’s wide receiving corps is deep with talent. In fact, this may be the most talented group of receivers from top to bottom – and it’s important to note that distinction – than the Bucs have had in some time. With the exception of perhaps Charles Spiller and Brian Clark, who haven’t impressed Pewter Report that much, just about every receiver – including the likes of Hankton, Taye Biddle, Micheal Spurlock, Chad Lucas and Amarri Jackson – has a legitimate shot to win a roster spot this year, depending on how many receivers the Bucs keep.

During the quarterback-receiver drills, Gruden was paying special attention to the routes being run. The first route that was practiced was deep slant.

“This is one of my favorite routes,” Gruden yelled. “This is a Cover 2 beater. Be aggressive. Go hard. I don’t want to see any finesse.”

Biddle and Spiller dropped catchable balls during this drill.

In keeping with the Cover 2 beaters, the next route for the receivers was running square outs.

“It’s got to like like a ‘go’ route, men,” Gruden screamed. “Go hard.”

All of the quarterbacks looked sharp throwing the ball in these timing drills, which featured no defense.

The third route that was practiced was running a comeback from the slot position.

“You’ve got to make [the defensive backs] turn and go,” Gruden said. “We need depth here.”

The normally sure-handed Hilliard had a drop during this drill, but the most noticeable gaffe was the fact that Antonio Bryant ran a go route and forgot to run a comeback route.

The fourth route that was practiced was a shallow crossing route that asked the receiver to settle down in the hole of the zone defense and present themselves as a target.

“It’s a zone. I want full speed,” Gruden barked. “Bust your ass on this. Go fast, men.”

During the offensive installation period, a lot of running backs and tight ends were split out wide in various formations. Halfbacks Clifton Smith, Michael Bennett and Warrick Dunn along with fullback Byron Storer all caught short passes after lining up as receivers.

Wide receiver Michael Clayton continues to look quick and smooth. He impressed on Thursday and should be in the mix for a starting job with Hilliard. Weighing much closer to 200 pounds for the first time in his rookie season, Clayton seems to be playing with more confidence and he caught the ball cleanly on Thursday, too.

Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris led his players through different footwork drills. Morris was his normal high-energy self and his players seem to be more in tune with his tempo now then they were in their first OTA sessions. The defensive backs worked on footwork drills and their different responsibilities on different coverage’s.

The linebackers were working on dropping into coverage, and then reading and reacting by exploding to a spot. The defensive line was working on hitting the blocking sled and then disengaging from the block and pursuing. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin roamed between the three groups. The defensive backs then went into a drill of hitting a pad to work on their form tackling. The safeties stood out well there.

After the group drills, the defense went into an installation period prior to the scrimmages. The Bucs did an 11-on-11 session, followed by a 7-on-7 session. After that they practiced kickoff returns and coverage. They then finished practice with a two-minute drill of 11-on-11 and ended that with some red zone and goal line plays.

The starting lineup for the defense was same as the last OTA except rookie Aqib Talib was in for Barber. From left to right on the defensive line were end Kevin Carter, under tackle Jovan Haye, nose tackle Chris Hovan, and end Gaines Adams. The linebackers from left to right were Derrick Brooks, Barrett Ruud, and Cato June. The cornerbacks were Phillip Buchanon and Talib. The safeties were Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson.

“Good job, Flip,” yelled Morris to Phillips. “Yeah that is the power we’re looking for.”

Phillips had some good moments in Thurday’s OTA. There were numerous plays that Phillips would have laid a big hit on a player if they were in pads and going full contact. One player that would have received a big hit is Smith, the diminutive rookie running back out of Fresno State. Phillips also got beat badly on a slant by tight end Ben Troupe on a pass from Jeff Garcia. The completion would have gone for a big gain.

Phillips also allowed a completion to tight end Jerramy Stevens from quarterback Luke McCown. Stevens ran an excellent route and presented a great target. McCown threw a laser to Stevens who was a few yards in front of Phillips.

“Nice job Sab,” said Morris to safety Sabby Piscitelli on a few occasions. Morris corrected the young safety on a few others. In the 7-on-7 session, Piscitelli closed quickly and would have made a strong hit on a receiver out of the backfield. Instead, Piscitelli was there to stop the completion from quarterback Brian Griese for a minimal gain.

At times Morris, would correct Talib. Morris made the first-round draft pick repeat certain drills and quizzed him on his proper responsibilities. Talib had some nice moments including rerouting a receiver into colliding with another receiver and taking both players out of the play. Talib also had some passes completed on him, including a pass and catch from Griese to fullback Byron Storer. The rookie out of Kansas was also beat by Stovall on a sideline pass from Garcia.

Cornerback Phillip Buchanon had one of the nicer plays in practice when he broke up a bomb from Griese to wide receiver Maurice Stovall. The pass was a little late, which allowed Buchanon to close the distance. Stovall was in the process of pulling the ball in but Buchanon got a hand in there to break up the completion. Buchanon and Phillips also allowed a pass from Griese to be completed by Paris Warren on the sideline. Buchanon also returned kickoffs during the special teams portion of practice.

Cornerback Eugene Wilson had a day with mixed results. Wilson looked fluid and was praised by Morris in the warm-ups. Wilson was also used as a nickel cornerback in the practice. During the scrimmage, he allowed a few receptions. Wilson also had a forced fumble after McCown completed a check down to rookie fullback Carl Stewart. After running a few yards, Wilson swooped in and smacked the ball out of Stewart’s hands, but the ball bounced right back up into the Auburn product’s hands.

One of the receptions that Wilson allowed was the perhaps the best play of the practice for the offense. In the first team scrimmage period, Garcia got great pass protection and pump faked the ball once to the right, once to the left, and then threw a bomb to a wide-open Dexter Jackson who had beaten Wilson down the left side of the field.

The ball was underthrown, but Jackson hauled the ball in and coasted into the end zone. It’s rare to see a double pump in the NFL because of the heat applied to quarterbacks from today’s big, quick defensive linemen.

After the play Jackson was speaking with Derrick Brooks while they were getting water. Brooks seemed to be giving Jackson some advice, and Jackson appeared to be enjoying the interaction with the Bucs great.

The veteran linebacker would’ve worked the rookie over on one particular play. Jackson was rerouted by Barrett Ruud and caught a short completion from Garcia, but he would’ve been planted by Brooks had it been a full-contact practice. Jackson also was returning kicks in the special teams portion of the practice. He looked much faster than he did during the rookie mini-camp when his hamstring was bothering him.

Ruud looked fast in practice and was flying to ball carriers coming out of the backfield. He was strong in pass defense as well. On one play, Griese checked down a pass to Bennett, who would’ve had a hard time holding onto the ball because Ruud was right there to make a big hit.

From the media’s vantage point at One Buccaneer Place, watching the line play is very difficult, but a few players stood out. Adams put on a big pass rush against tackle Dennis Roland, and it looked like Adams would’ve had a sack in live action. There were other plays that looked like Adams could’ve made if the players were hitting and tackling.

Carter made an impact play from his end position when he went through a blocking tight end, John Gilmore, to stuff a run at the line of scrimmage. Especially with live contact, Carter seems to not have lost a step in run defense.

Offensive lineman Dan Buenning looked good at the center position. Buenning went through Hovan on one play. Tackle Jeremy Trueblood had a false start that upset the coaches late in the scrimmage sessions. Overall though, the offensive line as a whole looked strong and seemed to be opening some good holes in the run game.

Dunn and Bennett had plenty of touches at the OTA. They both had some nice runs and used their speed to rip off yards in chunks. Bennett also fielded kickoffs during the special teams practice. He looked fast and dangerous throughout the practice. On one play he lined up as a wide receiver. The defense was playing off, and they threw Bennett the ball immediately after the snap. Bennett jetted for a nice gain on that play. It looked like every time the Bucs ran that play it gained about seven yards. All three quarterbacks were quick to use the backs for check downs.

The quarterbacks, as unit, had a pretty good day. Garcia was his normal, accurate self and completed a high percentage of his throws. Garcia hooked up with Biddle on a deep pass after he had gotten by cornerback Elbert Mack and safety Tanard Jackson.

As the offense was going no huddle Garcia completed a pass to Clayton who ran a good route for a nice run and catch against cornerback Darrell Hunter. On another play, Clayton beat Hunter again and had gotten open deep downfield but Garcia delivered the ball late. The pass was underthrown and fell incomplete. Garcia also missed a wide-open Hilliard on another play that he checked down to a back.

Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson got a great pass rush on Garcia as he beat left tackle Donald Penn with a hop-step move, forcing Garcia to dump the ball off quickly to Dunn, who was barely able to haul the pass in. Despite some miscues, Garcia looked better Thursday then he did in the OTA session the media was allowed to watch last week.

After Garcia’s reps, McCown followed in the quarterback rotation. He had a strong practice and showed some signs of maturity and improvement. On one play, McCown performed a tremendous look-off of the linebackers that opened up Smith on a check-down for a huge gain. The look-off was done with a purpose and was decisive. It looked like a sign of maturation as a quarterback.

McCown also displayed his mobility on Thursday scrambling often and throwing on the run. One trait that he shares with Garcia is throwing the ball accurately while on the move. On one play, McCown stepped up and threw a strike to Spurlock, who had beaten Hunter.

McCown made a perfect pass downfield to a wide-open Alex Smith, but the tight end dropped the pass that could’ve gone for a touchdown. The play was schemed perfectly with deep crossing patterns and Smith had beaten Phillips on the play. Smith was seen after practice working on catching the ball with rookie quarterback Josh Johnson and rookie tight end Tyrice Thompson.

After McCown’s reps, Griese came in and had some mixed results. He had some struggles in 11-on-11, but also completed his share of passes. Griese threw a pass that Stovall had to lay out for but was unable to hold onto the ball in front of Hunter. Griese completed a nice pass to B.J. Askew who turned upfield for a nice gain before Buchanon came over to likely have forced him out of bounds.

Griese also threw the one interception of the practice in the goal line scrimmage. The quick pass was picked off by defensive lineman Marques Douglas and then pitched the ball to Brooks who ran it about 10 to 15 yards before being forced out. The defense was hooting and hollering after that play. The offense got them back on the next play when running back Kenneth Darby ran behind Trueblood and Joseph to get into the end zone.

The goal line defense had a mix of starters and backups. On the six-man line from left to right were end Greg White, tackle Jovan Haye, tackle Chris Hovan, tackle Ryan Sims, tackle Douglas, and end Adams. The linebackers were Ruud and Brooks. The secondary was comprised of Piscitelli, Phillips, and safety Will Allen.

The final part of the practice was four field goal tries from 30-40 yards. Bryant was kicking on uprights that were the same width as Arena Football League uprights. Bryant nailed three of four attempts.

The team huddled up where Gruden addressed the team and then introduced Spurrier. The legendary ‘ball coach’ spoke to the team for a few minutes before the practice ended.

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