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Pewter Report writers Charlie Campbell and Scott Reynolds combine forces to hit on a few Bucs topics that they have noticed over training camp.
1. COMPETITION AT WILL?
One of the most interesting parts of practice during training camp has been the transition to linebacker for Jermaine Phillips. The former starting safety was moved to Will (weakside) linebacker after re-signing with the team in March, and spent all of the offseason workouts at linebacker. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Phillips has always been a physical hitter that was effective in run support.
Moving Phillips to linebacker was done for a few reasons. The Buccaneers wanted to get 2007 second-round pick Sabby Piscitelli on the field as a starting safety. Piscitelli was injured his rookie season, and started in place of an injured Phillips for five games in the 2008 season.
The Bucs also had a hole at Will linebacker after Derrick Brooks was released. Second-year player Geno Hayes showed promise in his rookie season, but was injured and missed six games with a knee injury. Phillips, Hayes, Matt McCoy, and Adam Hayward were projected to compete to be the starter at Will.
Thus far in training camp Phillips seems to be entrenched as the starter. Hayes has been competing at Sam (strongside) linebacker with Quincy Black and Angelo Crowell. Hayes and Black have revolved taking snaps with the first unit, but Phillips has always been in with the first unit at Will. It is clear that Phillips needs the reps to get accustomed to his position change, but some have wondered if Phillips is secure as the starting Will linebacker. If you ask the Buccaneers you will hear different answers.
"At the Sam linebacker position there's competition," said Barry. "But our guys know, Flip included, that just because you're the starter doesn't mean you can just put your feet up and relax. Barrett Ruud is our starting Mike ‘backer, and Jermaine Phillips is our starting Will ‘backer. We have a bunch of guys getting reps at the Sam linebacker position.
"Flip has been a starter off and on here, so it's his job to lose. He can't just relax because we have guys that want to take his job. But if we were to play tomorrow Flip would be our starting Will. The Sam ‘backer position is the one that is totally open for competition."
Barry's comments indicate that Phillips is the virtual starter, and the competition is primarily at the Sam linebacker. Pewter Report asked head coach Raheem Morris if there was still a competition at Will or if Phillips is now entrenched as the starter.
"No, there is definitely a competition at Will," said Morris. "You've got Geno. You've got to play the best three linebackers regardless of what position they're at. It's not as much as the old system was as to who was locked in as the Will and the Sam. We would never flip-flop them. It was completely different positions and we would never put Derrick [Brooks] at Sam for a game. Whereas now, the best three guys are going to play, so if they are stacked behind each other that is fine as long as they get the reps.
"The competition is at linebacker, not at the Sam or Will per say. It is different for the Mike (middle) obviously, but the Sam and Will are mirrored positions. When they move the tight end to the other side, the linebacker is doing [the assignment] the other one was doing before, so they got to know. They are mirrored positions, so the best three backers are going to play. Flip definitely has competition. He has it from Geno, Quincy Black, Matt McCoy, and he also has it from [Adam] Hayward. It has been good."
Thus, Phillips is pretty much learning linebacker. He plays either Sam or Will depending on where the tight end lines up. Phillips has had some solid play in training camp. He has done a good job of being around the ball, and been a good tackler, but he hasn't made many splash plays.
Overall, Phillips' strength as a linebacker is in run support, although he is still getting used to taking on blocks from offensive linemen. He seems to be inclined to run around the linemen rather than taking on their blocks, disengaging, and getting to the football.
Where Phillips has really struggled has been in pass defense. Running backs and tight ends have consistently gotten separation from him, and he struggles to cover receivers out of the backfield and off the line of scrimmage.
Those are two things that are strengths of Hayes'. The Florida State product has been very solid in pass protection. He has excellent speed and has been able to keep pace with wide receivers running routes underneath, and crossing in the short to intermediate part of the field. Hayes has consistently been able to compile pass breakups covering running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers. In short, Hayes has ball skills.
So far, Hayes has had a very good training camp. He is flying around the field, and is physical. He does not hesitate in taking on blocks from offensive linemen, and obviously has more experience playing close to the line of scrimmage than Phillips does. Phillips' primary competition seems to think that it is open as well.
"There is a competition at (Will), too," said Hayes. "At the same time, Flip has to get as many reps as possible to get in tune to playing that spot. I'm still learning Will, and still playing Will. Whenever they talk about the Will I have to be listening closely. I'm getting to know Sam way better, and could play both if I have to."
Hayes has never played Sam linebacker before, but he has made the transition smoothly.
"Actually, it is something that I'm used to," said Hayes. "It is very physical, and I like being physical. It is not too much different."
After practice on Saturday, Morris was asked what players have been the pleasant surprises of training camp. After mentioning wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, Morris talked about Hayes and Black having been two of the most impressive players.
"Geno Hayes, Quincy Black – those guys are pleasant surprises," said Morris. "I'm watching those guys run around and make plays. Especially Quincy Black these past few days. His pass rushing ability off the end, the way he stands up and plays, the plays he's made at linebacker. He's excited about it. He starting to develop and mature. We are really excited about it."
The comments from Barry, Morris, and Hayes do not seem to be on the same page. There is still half of training camp and the four preseason games to find the starters at linebacker, unless they have been penciled in already.
In Pewter Report's opinion through the first week of training camp, the three best linebackers have been Ruud, Black, and Hayes. Our prediction is that Black, Ruud, and Phillips will be the starters on opening day against Dallas, but that Hayes will rotate in regularly for Phillips and the two will platoon the Will linebacker position during the regular season.
The thought of Phillips lining up in pass coverage against speedy Cowboys halfback Felix Jones may be a scary one on September 13.
2. CROWELL UPDATE
Missing from the linebacker competition has been free agent signee Angelo Crowell. In the offseason, Crowell was unable to practice due to recovering from a knee injury he sustained during the 2008 preseason, and he has been absent for most of training camp with a hamstring injury. For Crowell to make the team, he is going to have to get on the field soon.
"Well, they say you can't make the club in the tub, so we're definitely concerned about it," said Morris. "You want him back and you want him to be there, but if he's not physically able there's nothing you can do about it. You have to move on. I am worried about it, but I'm more worried about the kid than I am the position. I want to see how he's going to respond to it, and I think he will respond because he's a mentally tough guy."
That is not a ringing endorsement for Crowell's chances of making the team. Although he is expected back in practice next week, Pewter Report did not think he would become the starting Sam linebacker or that he was even a lock to make the team. It looks like that prediction may come true.
Prior to the injury, Crowell was not standing out with splash plays or being around the ball during the OTAs (organized team activities). Black and Hayes have created a lot of buzz, so for Crowell the focus may be now on making the team, not winning a starting job. If Crowell does not get on the field soon and impress the coaching staff he could be this year's Eugene Wilson or Marques Douglas – a big name offseason addition that just doesn't make the team.
3. STOVALL ADJUSTS
Bucs wide receiver Maurice Stovall is still the last player off the practice field, but times have changed. Instead of spending an extra 30 minutes running routes and catching passes after practice, Stovall spends that time signing autographs for fans – at the team's insistence.
Stovall has starred in camp over the last two seasons, making acrobatic catches and even running with the first-team offense for several practices at a time in August. But halfway through camp, Stovall would have to deal with cramps from dehydration, or suffer hamstring injuries that would derail his progress as the start of the season approaches.
The reason is that Stovall, who admitted to Pewter Report that he has a compulsion to work out in an offseason SR's Fab 5 column, literally wore himself down in camp by spending too much time on the hot practice field.
This year, the training staff and coaching staff has nixed Stovall's post-practice workout regimen, which they believe had a detrimental effect on his performance over the last couple years and hindered his development as a receiver.
"It's more so the coaches wanting me to not workout after practice more so than myself," Stovall said. "I never want to leave anything on the field, and I don't feel like I want to leave the field if there is something I need to work on or fix. There are ways of doing that without wearing yourself down. They tell me if I want to catch balls, they tell me to sit in the shade to do it, or kneel down and do it. I still do that from time to time and get quality work in. In the offseason, the coaches and trainers were telling me to take it easy and not go at it too hard. I'm trying to do that, but I always like to have a good work ethic."
Stovall, who is in a contract year, hasn't been as stellar during the first week of camp as he has been in year's past, but he's moderating his exertion level in camp in a concerted effort to not burn out his body and fire all of his guns in August, thus not having any bullets left when the regular season starts.
"I definitely feel less fatigued this year," Stovall said. "I think I have matured over the years and realized that you can get yourself in shape during training camp. In past years, I was in shape heading into training camp and I was game-ready the first day of camp. Then I would just go full speed all the time. My body wasn't able to handle that. I'm now using our practice schedule to get in shape instead of killing my body. It's been working for me so far. I feel real good."
4. FULTON ON HIS WAY
The 2009 Bucs draft pick that has received the least amount of attention and coverage is fifth-round pick Xavier Fulton. The Illinois product had a shoulder injury entering the draft, and he was unable to practice during any of the organized team activities or the mini-camp. Fulton was able to get his shoulder back to 100 percent before training camp. The injury didn't prevent Fulton from getting ready for training camp.
"I did a lot of conditioning and tried to get adjusted to the heat and humidity," said Fulton. "I was trying to strengthen my shoulder so I can be balanced. I also got back into the film and concentrated on football and learn this offense, which is really complicated."
Fulton studied the playbook and said that Bucs offense is much more complex than what he played in with the Fighting Illini.
"We ran the spread, and we had some similar stuff in the zone runs," said Fulton. "As far as pass protection, it is a whole new monster compared to what we did at Illinois. A whole new terminology, which makes it that much harder."
Thus far in training camp practices, the reps for Fulton have been limited. When he has gotten in scrimmages and taken reps in the 1-on-1 drills Fulton has shown some great athleticism. He has good footwork and speed, and has done well against the Bucs' speed rushers like Gaines Adams.
At 6-foot-4, 301 pounds, Fulton has all the tools that NFL teams look for in left tackles. What he doesn't have, and what caused him to fall to the fifth round, is experience. Fulton got a late start in football and broke into the lineup at left tackle as a junior. In order to help Fulton's development, the Bucs are not cross-training Fulton at both tackle positions.
"Right now they have me focusing on left," said Fulton. "I'll just say I'm really rusty. At least that's my excuse for now. It is a whole another level of competition out here going against grown men. Guys with children who have been doing longer than I've been playing O-line or even football for that matter, so it has been quite a challenge, but I'm hoping I'm getting better everyday at it.
"There is some carryover obviously the game hasn't completely changed. The level of competition has shot completely through the roof. It will take some time to adjust, but I'll get it. These guys are trained to get off the ball on the slightest movement. I've been watching film and sometimes they are jumping off sides off the ball, but they are so close they are moving as the ball is moving."
This could be a redshirt year for Fulton where the team tries to sneak him on the practice squad, but Tampa Bay could greatly benefit if Fulton were to step up, and give the team some depth. The second-team offensive line has really struggled in training camp.
The depth of the unit took a huge hit when Jeremy Zuttah moved into the starting lineup to replace the absent Arron Sears. In practice, the second-team line has regularly gotten beat in pass protection. Guard Marc Dile and tackle Demar Dotson have flashed at times. Offensive tackle James Lee and guard Julius Wilson were with the team last year, and had some buzz about them entering camp, but have had mixed outings through the first week. Veteran Sean Mahan is a solid, experienced backup at center, but that is the only established back-up on the line. Morris thinks the team needs more depth to emerge.
"I think everybody in the league is concerned about depth at O-line," said Morris. "Usually your depth at O-line is two guys. One guy is a swing tackle, and one guy is a guard and center. If you got more than that than you got a pretty good football team. Last year, Zuttah was a swing guy, and that was the extent of our depth. Right now we got some promising young guys. Dile is looking promising. You got Dotson and Xavier Fulton, so the depth is really as good as it has ever been. Especially when you talk about having to make a cut and who is going to be your swing guy at guard and center. The concern would be who is going to block for the backup quarterback when he gets in the game, so that is a concern and always has been. Some years you have to play your offensive line starters a little bit longer than you would like to, but I'm not too concerned about it. You have to find a swing person and someone on the inside."
Fulton has the tools, and the Bucs are in a position of need to have some solid back-ups step up. If Tampa Bay were to have an injury at guard or tackle it could be a major setback for the offense.