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For the first time in my 11 years of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers professionally, the team closed its rookie mini-camp to the media. Well, the Bucs did allow the media to watch the first 35 minutes of practice before we all were escorted to the media trailer by the Tampa Bay public relations staff. But the first 15 minutes of practice was dedicated to stretching and warm-ups. Not very exciting stuff.

The Buccaneers closed their mandatory mini-camp to the media for the first time last year, and that ridiculously frustrating practice will likely continue again this June. Under general manager Bruce Allen, the Bucs have become much more secretive and private about the way they do things in practice, and figure that having a full, open training camp in August is a long enough time for the media to view the team.

Practices have always been closed during the regular season since head coach Jon Gruden’s arrival in 2002.

Needless to say, the observations in this Pewter Insider article will be brief in nature as we only had about 20 minutes to watch the rookies go through individual drills. But something is better than nothing.

With so many players to watch in such a time crunch, it was difficult to get a full analysis on the members Bucs’ rookie class, but here are some things that stood out.

Several Bucs veterans were there watching practice Friday, including quarterback Chris Simms, running back Michael Pittman, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland and tight end Alex Smith. I got the chance to speak with Smith and I asked him about his former Stanford teammate, defensive lineman Julian Jenkins, who was drafted by Tampa Bay in the fifth round.

“He’s a physical type of defensive player,” Smith said. “I remember back in college that he was a big, strong, physical guy and it looks like he only got bigger. I think he’ll bring those attributes to our defense. He can play multiple positions. Being versatile is going to be a big plus at this level. Having another Stanford guy here is great. I was here all by myself. Now I won’t be lonely (laughs).”

One of the things I wanted to find out from the Bucs players this offseason is how much they like the new conditioning program implemented by new strength and conditioning coach Mike Morris, who was Garrett Giemont’s assistant last year. Word around One Buc Place was that Giemont was a bit cold with the players and was a taskmaster that rubbed some of them the wrong way.

Tampa Bay was wise to not renew his contract, promote the popular Morris, whose primary focus last year was working on speed, and hire former Minnesota strength coach Kurt Schultz.

“It’s real good change,” Smith said. “It’s a big change from what we were used to. I think Kurt has brought a lot of new ideas in here from Minnesota. It’s real good and I think it shows in the turnout. We’ve had about 98 percent of the guys here.

“There are all kind of differences. For example, we are boxing now and doing crazy stuff you would never have thought of. I think they have a good plan for us. Guys like seeing results right away, so I think that’s why guys are really into this type of training. The boxing is fun. It’s tiring, too. You work on hand-eye coordination and your stamina with the speed bag and the other bags. It’s something I never would have thought of, but it’s fun. Once you see what those boxers go through, then you can really see what kind of shape you are in.”

Smith said he was pleased to see Morris take over the strength and conditioning program because he’s more player-friendly.

“He has some new ideas that are going to help the team out while keeping things fun,” Smith said. “It gets old just running, lifting and conditioning, but doing these new things is really helping us make it more enjoyable.

“Mike has always been a favorite around here. That’s not necessarily a knock on who we’ve had around here before, but he’s a player-friendly coach who will shoot it to you straight. There’s more emphasis on speed here now – speed and power and conditioning. Now we have a program where we can get it all done.”

Smith said that having an imposing figure like Shultz around keeps the players in line and focused on their conditioning and weight lifting.

“He’s a big dude with a big frame, so any time he’s barking orders at you, you are going to listen,” Smith said with a laugh. “But he’s a nice guy and we’ve enjoyed having him here.”

New Tampa Bay long snapper Boone Stutz, who hails from Texas A&M, shows some real promise in the few snaps I saw. He gets the ball back there with great velocity and accuracy. He really launches some missles. Stutz was highly regarded coming out of college as one of the best long-snappers in the country, but he’ll really have to make a strong impression to beat out veteran Dave Moore, who is a favorite in Rich Bisaccia’s special teams room. However, Moore isn’t a lock to win that job with a qualified candidate like Stutz around.

As expected, Bucs quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett spent a lot of time with Bruce Gradkowski, the team’s sixth-round pick, instead of try-out quarterback Jay Davis (North Carolina State). With Gradkowski on the team, it’s doubtful that Jared Allen, who is over in NFL Europe, will even make it to training camp. The Bucs like to bring four quarterbacks to Orlando – not five.

At barely 6-foot-2, Gradkowski is not a big guy, and reminds me of Jeff Garcia in terms of his mobility, although he’s probably an inch or two taller than Garcia. His quick release and accuracy remind me of Brian Griese. Gradkowski is a bright, humble quarterback with great charisma. I stated earlier that I wouldn’t be surprised if he beats out Tim Rattay for the third quarterback position, and I stand by that statement.

Right guard Davin Joseph, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick, is such a stout, compact, wide-bodied offensive lineman that he reminds me of former guard Ian Beckles during his playing days with the Buccaneers. Joseph is a bit trimmer than Beckles was and is more agile, but he doesn’t have Beckles’ mammoth calves.

Joseph plays with a wide base that eats up space, and it appears as if he has a great sense of balance, likely from his wrestling background. Joseph, offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood and wide receiver Maurice Stovall – all first-day selections in the draft – were the mini-camp leaders during calisthenics. Shultz and Morris were more hands-on during warm-ups, actually getting on the ground to demonstrate stretching techniques for the rookies on hand. I can’t recall seeing Giemont do anything like that before.

Several one-year players were participating during the rookie mini-camp, including wide receiver Larry Brackins, cornerback James Patrick, defensive tackle Lynn McGruder and offensive linemen Jonathan Clinkscale and Stefan Rodgers.

Brackins looks like he has really gotten himself into top shape. He looks a bit faster and quicker, and is really cut with respect to his physique. He still needs to work on catching the ball cleanly with his fingertips. He lets the ball get into his palms a little too much, but he he has improved as a receiver. Brackins looks smoother and more comfortable running around on the field now. He knows where he’s going in terms of his routes and gets there with a purpose.

Rookie wide receiver Maurice Stovall looks like another Michael Clayton. Stovall is not a quick-twitch athlete and lacks suddenness, but like Clayton, he builds speed with every stride and is a big, physical target At 219 pounds, he’s also thicker and more muscular than Clayton is. Stovall did a nice job catching the ball in the individual skills period.

The Bucs offensive line coaches – Bill Muir and Aaron Kromer – were working with the linemen and getting them to stay low. Joseph didn’t have a problem with that because he’s a good knee-bender and he’s just under 6-foot-3. Surprisingly, the 6-foot-8 Trueblood was more nimble than I expected in this drill and also had little difficulty firing out of the blocking chutes, which are designed to keep players low and force them to take short, choppy steps.

Undrafted rookie running back Andre Hall showed good acceleration and quickness. The fact that the Bucs signed him as an undrafted free agent was a bit of a steal. However, with the Bucs really liking backups Derek Watson and Earnest Graham, Hall faces an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster. He will have to star on special teams and probably win the kick return duties to stick. The fact that Pittman wants to return kicks and is eager to do so after having some success doing that at the end of last year means this will be an interesting training camp battle to watch.

Draft picks T.J. Williams and Tim Massaquoi aren’t the quickest tight ends, which is why they were drafted in the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively. Both did a good job of catching the ball and building up speed once they got off the line. It will be interesting to see how these players do in 11-on-11 drills at training camp and just how physical they will be once the pads come on.

It doesn’t appear that there are too many sleepers among the rookie try-outs. For one thing, Tampa Bay’s roster is much stronger in May of 2006 than it was in May of 2005. Secondly, there don’t appear to be any players the caliber of Watson or Patrick among this group of try-outs this year. The fact that Tampa Bay’s roster is so deep probably kept some of the better, undrafted free agents away so they could pursue better opportunities on other teams that aren’t so talented.

This story is intended to be read by Pewter Insider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at:
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