Injuries sustained by Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman have depleted Tampa Bay's running back position, but they also could give rookie RB Kenneth Darby the opportunity he's been waiting for.
With Williams out for the season with a torn patellar tendon and Pittman sidelined for 6-8 weeks with a severe high ankle sprain, the Bucs roster has become quite thin at the running back position over the past two weeks.
Tampa Bay's ground game, which currently ranks 15th in the NFL, is now led by Earnest Graham, B.J. Askew and Zack Crockett, who was signed by the Bucs on Wednesday.
Darby, a 2007 seventh-round draft pick out of Alabama, could also be called on to play in Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans since Crockett is considered a better fullback than he is a halfback.
Neither Graham, who has rushed for 147 yards on 36 carries (4.1 avg.) and three touchdowns this season, nor Darby has a career start in the NFL, which is one of the main reasons why the Bucs signed Crockett, a 13th-year player that played for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden in Oakland from 1999-2001.
However, the addition of Crockett, who has carried the ball 509 times for 1,701 yards (3.3 avg.) and 36 touchdowns since 1995, doesn't necessarily mean Darby won't be given an opportunity to contribute against the Titans.
"I feel like Earnest Graham is a very good football player and Ken Darby is going to get an opportunity and obviously for a young back at this stage in his career it's a great challenge," Gruden said. "But opportunity only knocks so many times and you got to answer the door and Ken Darby is going to do that for us."
Darby was a proven runner at Alabama, where he had 3,664 all-purpose yards and ranked third all-time in Crimson Tide history with 3,324 rushing yards, which ranked behind only Shaun Alexander and Bobby Humphrey.
The 5-foot-10, 211-pound Darby turned in an impressive preseason with the Bucs, carrying the ball a team leading 33 times for 135 yards (4.1 avg.) and scoring one touchdown. He also caught five passes for 36 yards.
"My whole goal was to show them I can play on this level," Darby said of his preseason. "I have a good understanding of the game and I wanted them to know that I could get the job done. Those are some of the key points I wanted to get across during the preseason."
But that production wasn't enough to earn Darby a 53-man roster spot with the Bucs. It was, however, enough to convince Tampa Bay to sign Darby to its eight-man practice squad in early September.
During each week of practice Darby attempted to make a solid impression on the Bucs players and coaching staff by maxing out as a scout team running back. He also tried to showcase his talents on Tampa Bay's offense, although he was stopped in his tracks more often than not.
"When you're on the practice squad you pretty much simulate what other teams are doing to help our team prepare for the opponent, but sometimes I tried to sneak in and do some of our plays on our offense against our defense," said Darby. "Nine out of 10 times Coach Gruden caught me."
Darby spent the first four weeks of the 2007 regular season on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster shortly after Williams suffered his season-ending knee injury in Carolina on Oct. 7.
While he would have preferred to have been on Tampa Bay's 53-man roster from Week 1 on, Darby said his time on the practice squad has allowed him to become more comfortable with Gruden's playbook.
"A lot more," Darby said when asked how much more comfortable he was with Gruden's playbook. "It's just more reps and more competitive reps that I've been doing since preseason. Now I feel more relaxed with the playbook whereas in preseason when I was a little anxious and didn't know it that well. I'm comfortable with the playbook now."
Darby was active for his first NFL game in Indianapolis last Sunday, but he did not play. He isn't sure if he'll get on the field against the Tennessee Titans and their 3rd-ranked run defense this Sunday, but he's sure he'll be ready if and when the Bucs decide to ask him to contribute on offense or special teams.
"I really have no idea," said Darby of what his role would be against the Titans. "I leave it up to [the coaches] to determine the game plan and utilize the personnel. That's all out of my control. I just go with the flow. I've just been patient and calm and trying to do my part on and off the field. I hope I get an opportunity to go out there and show what I can do. I just have to be ready when they call my number."
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