The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened up their 2008 rookie mini-camp on Friday afternoon at One Buccaneer Place under sunny skies and hot conditions. The temperature was 87 degrees, but the humidity wasn't too bad.
After some brief individual drills, the team of seven Bucs draft picks, five undrafted free agent signings, a handful of Buccaneers young players who were already on the roster (cornerback Marcus Hamilton, defensive end Marquis Gunn, wide receiver Charlie Spiller and guard Brian Johnson) and about three dozen tryout players came together for calisthenics with rookies Jeremy Zuttah, Aqib Talib and Dexter Jackson leading the way.
With the way that the Buccaneers practice field is configured and the movement restrictions placed upon the media, it was difficult to assess the performance of Zuttah, an interior linemen from Rutgers, who was Tampa Bay's third-round pick, as well as the play of fourth-round pick, Maryland defensive tackle Dre` Moore. However, Zuttah was snapping the ball to the quarterbacks prior to calisthenics, and team sources have told PewterReport.com that he will be cross-training at both guard and center after playing primarily at right tackle for the Scarlet Knights. Tampa Bay does not have a proven center behind Jeff Faine, who is the starter, and Zuttah, Dan Buenning and Arron Sears will be competing for the right to be the backup.
Quarterback Josh Johnson, Tampa Bay's fifth-round pick, looked good throwing the ball in the 40 minutes that the media was allowed to watch practice. He has a quick set-up with his footwork and holds the ball high and tight near his shoulders, which allows him to get the ball out quickly. Johnson doesn't have an overly strong arm, but does a good job throwing quick slants and has good velocity on his short and intermediate throws. Johnson seems very poised dropping back and has a nice, relaxed release.
Nebraska's Sam Keller was the other quarterback in camp, and it is no surprise that he is in Tampa Bay in a tryout capacity. Last year, another Nebraska quarterback, Zac Taylor, was brought in to throw in the rookie mini-camp and provide an extra arm in training camp. Keller and Taylor were well schooled in the West Coast offense at Nebraska by head coach Bill Callahan, who was Gruden's offensive line coach and successor in Oakland. Callahan used Gruden's playbook at Nebraska and that's a big reason why Gruden signed a couple of undrafted Cornhuskers quarterbacks for the rookie mini-camps over the last two years.
In the individual quarterback period, Johnson and Keller, who transferred from Arizona State prior to the 2007 season, showed how comfortable they are rolling out to their right and throwing the ball. Johnson, who ran a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash at the Indianapolis Scouting Combine, has tremendous physical skills and was clearly more athletic than Keller.
Keller and Johnson had trouble connecting on some slant passes during the individual passing period with the wide receivers, but the fault was mainly with the pass catchers instead of the throwers.
"We've got to keep the ball off the ground," Gruden yelled at his quarterbacks and receivers.
Tampa Bay offensive coordinator and line coach Bill Muir spent the majority of the first 40 minutes of practice working with his players to the far left of the practice field, which made it difficult to see much.
However, before they left the practice field to warm-up, Muir had his players run through foot drills, and it didn't take long to notice Zuttah, who practically glided through the grounded pads and displayed impressive footwork and quickness. Zuttah is easily the best athlete of this group.
Jackson, who looked rather small compared to the other receivers, didn't stand out in the 40 minutes the media was permitted to watch practice on Friday. And if he did it might have been for the wrong reason.
The 5-foot-9, 182-pound Jackson is quick, but didn't appear to be as fast as advertised. In the first 40 minutes of practice, Jackson wasn't shifting into higher gears as we expected. He was also seen double-catching a few passes early in practice. To be fair, the media didn't get the chance to watch him go up against defenders, particularly defensive backs, in team drills.
Jackson appeared to be laboring and winded quite early in practice. In fact, just 30 minutes into practice, which was held in hot and humid conditions, Jackson's hands were on his hips and his helmet was up – and eventually off – while waiting for his turn to run more routes in warm-ups.
The practice was open to the media for 40 minutes, but closed to the public for the entire duration of the two-hour workout. Don't worry, Bucs fans. You didn't miss much, especially at the receiver position, where there were plenty of dropped passes.
One of the most disappointing things from the first part of the practice was the fact that Bucs first-year wide receiver Charlie Spiller was one of the players putting the ball on the ground. It will be interesting to see how Spiller fares throughout the weekend since the Bucs wouldn't hesitate to sign a tryout receiver to the offseason roster if that player outperforms him – especially since he should have a head start over the rookies.
Talib, the Bucs' 2008 first-round pick out of Kansas, stood out above all of his fellow defensive backs. The 6-foot-1, 206-pound Talib was literally the tallest defensive back out on the practice field. The only player that might have been as tall – or maybe a half of an inch taller – was Florida safety Kyle Jackson, who was one of the tryout players on the field on Friday.
For inquiring minds that want to know, Talib was sporting former Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly's old jersey number 25. While Kelly played for the Bucs for 10 seasons, Tampa Bay didn't waste anytime in giving out his jersey number.
Of course, the fact that Kelly bought himself out of his contract in February to test free agency and eventually sign with the Detroit Lions certainly didn't help his chances of keeping his jersey number unworn like No. 99 and No. 47, which were sported by former Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp and safety John Lynch, respectively.
The defensive backs had a high-paced workout led by defensive backs coach Raheem Morris. Initially, the cornerbacks and safeties were working hard on drills emphasizing backpedaling, turning and catching the ball. Some of the tryout players struggled with being ready for the ball and dropped the pass. Jacksonville's Bryan Flowers and Georgia Southern's Brandon Jackson struggled with the ball hitting them in the chest and falling incomplete.
Morris gave compliments to Talib and Jonathan Hefney, an undrafted free agent signee from Tennessee. The muscle-bound Hefney, who is just 5-foot-8 and weighs 190 pounds, is built in a similar fashion to Indianapolis Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders.
Cornerback Marcus Hamilton, Tampa Bay's seventh-round pick in 2007, was also praised by Morris for his good footwork during the first 40 minutes of practice. Watching the defensive backs closely for a while was director of college scouting Dennis Hickey.
"Kicking ass, M-Ham!" yelled Morris as Hamilton glided through the drill.
Not only did Talib wear Brian Kelly's old number he also was playing left corner just like the former Buccaneer great. Morris yelled for left corners to line up and Talib lead them. Hamilton was first in line for right corners due to his familiarity with the practice routine.
In drills with corners and safeties the first four players in the group were: Talib at left corner, Hamilton at right corner, and Hefney and Florida State's Anthony Houllis at safety. The backup corners and safeties lined up behind the starting four in three rows.
The drill had more practice on footwork and breaks. The entire unit was supposed to start as whole but there were numerous occasions where one player jumped early.
"Come on, Hef, drill killa," said Morris to Hefney after he started early in one particular drill.
Houllis stood out with maximum effort on every play. The other way that he stood out was handling the heat. The Florida State product seemed to be less effected than the rest of the defensive backs.
After the footwork drills, the defensive backs went over to the blocking sled. There they practiced hitting the sled, disengaging from the pad, and then pursuing. After awhile on that drill, the cornerbacks and safeties split into two separate groups.
The cornerbacks were practicing staying with a receiver as they came off the line of scrimmage and then re-routing the ball catcher. Morris started off the drills doing it himself, and illustrating what he wanted. Hamilton was used often by Morris for purposes of illustration, Talib as well.
"See your hands on ‘em," yelled Morris. Not all players were able to get that done, but Talib excelled using his long arms and quick feet to make the connection every time. At 6-foot-1, 206 pounds, Talib was easily the tallest defensive back in the group.
"See your hands on ‘em, Aqib, beautiful," said Morris.
The safeties worked on backpedaling at an angle and then breaking deep to compete for a pass downfield.
Hefney displayed nice hands making a beautiful, one-handed catch, and getting two feet in bounds before his momentum took him over the line.
Morris rode the cornerbacks hard throughout the drill. At one point, Talib broke the wrong direction and Morris made him repeat the drill numerous times. Once Talib knew how to perform the drill, he excelled.
"That's it, that's it – a natural," said Morris to the Bucs' first-round pick. Morris really focused on Talib and was riding him positively and correctively throughout the drills.
Watching the safeties and corners closely was former Buccaneers linebacker Shelton Quarles.
A couple of the tryout players were familiar to Morris, who spent the 2006 season as the defensive coordinator at Kansas State University. Former Wildcats cornerback Byron Garvin and defensive tackle Alphonso Moran played under Morris at K-State and were brought in for try-outs. Neither player is expected to make the team.
The University of South Florida, which resides in Tampa, had two players trying out for the team in wide receiver Amarri Jackson, who is not known for his hands and dropped a couple of passes on Friday, and offensive tackle Walt Walker. But Florida State had the most players in the camp with Houllis, Hayes, guard Jacky Claude and long snapper Garrison Keller in attendance.
After practice, Talib, Hefney and Troy cornerback Elbert Mack were seen fielding punts. Ironically, Jackson wasn't among that group. However, it is safe to assume that Jackson fielded punts during practice.
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