Here a couple of things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. To pay tribute to the fighting spirit of the 27 Tampa Bay players who comprise “the underdogs” in the story titled “The Underdogs Give Bucs Plenty Of Bite,” this SR’s Fab 5 takes a deeper look at some of the talented late-round picks and undrafted free agents that have made huge contributions to the 6-3 Buccaneers, beginning with rookie running back LeGarrette Blount. This SR’s Fab 5 is kind of a complement to that story, so if you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to do so.
There has been perhaps no bigger champion of Blount’s cause in Tampa Bay than yours truly. I’ve been high on him since before he landed the infamous sucker punch following the Boise State vs. Oregon game last year due to the Ducks game I had watched in 2009 when I was scouting him. I had not been this excited about the talents of a big running back since becoming a huge fan of Corey Dillon’s running style at the University of Washington in 1996.
Several times over the past year, I have made mention of Blount on my radio show and in various columns and articles, even listing him as a second-day Bucs’ Best Bet in our 2010 draft preview, and then scolding general manager Mark Dominik for either not drafting him late or signing him as an undrafted free agent. But Dominik made up for it by picking Blount up off the waiver wire just before the start of the season.
After his six-carry, 27-yard debut against Pittsburgh in which he also rushed for his first NFL touchdown, I began lobbying for Blount to overtake the struggling Cadillac Williams, who was averaging 2.5 yards per carry, as the team’s primary ballcarrier. Several weeks later Blount accomplished that feat, but not after being surprisingly deactivated against New Orleans in a game the Bucs lost 31-6.
“I really didn’t know I was going to be out that week,” Blount said. “They really don’t let us know until game time. When I went in and didn’t see my jersey hanging up I pretty much knew.
“I know how the game works now. You need what you need. It’s more valuable to carry more special teams guys on Sundays than it is to carry an extra running back. The times I haven’t dressed, it’s not because they didn’t want me to. It’s because they had a need elsewhere or on special teams.”
Here’s an interesting little tidbit for you. Blount has never played on special teams at the NFL or collegiate level outside of perhaps a few plays in Tennessee in the preseason.
“I actually didn’t play on special teams at Oregon,” Blount said. “I was a feature back, and the first year I wasn’t a feature back I was a backup to Jeremiah Johnson and I didn’t play special teams then, either. I played just as much as he did.
“That’s a big reason why I wasn’t active early in the season here in Tampa, but I’ll do whatever they ask me to do. If it’s special teams, I’ll play special teams. If it’s to be on the scout team, I’ll be on the scout team. All they have asked me to do here is play running back, though. I might eventually do some special teams. Who knows? As it stands right now I’m just a running back.”
And with Blount having a breakout season with 359 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 79 carries, his current role on the team likely won’t change. It’s just amazing to think that a player like Blount who came from a community college before spending his final two years at Oregon never covered a kick or blocked on a return. And given his undrafted free agent status, it’s shocking that he has made the quick ascent up the depth chart without having to pay his dues on fourth down like so many other Bucs running backs have over the years, including Aaron Stecker, Earnest Graham, Kareem Huggins and Kregg Lumpkin.
Graham, who had to toil on special teams for years before receiving a chance to play on offense, has been a huge mentor for Blount since his arrival in Tampa Bay in September. With Graham struggling to overcome a nagging hamstring injury and dealing with the recent loss of his mother, the fact that Blount gave Graham the ball he scored his touchdown with against the Panthers on Sunday speaks volumes about their relationship.
“I had it planned the whole time,” Blount said. “He’s been going through a lot here lately with his mom passing like that. I’ve talked to him quite a bit about it to make sure he’s all right. Basically, Earnest means a lot to me. Ever since I got here he’s helped me and do things for me and he kept me up-tempo on the offense. … I felt like that would be a wonderful thing. The first touchdown I scored in that game I was going to give him the game ball.”
It’s little, selfless acts like these that make it hard to believe that Blount is the villain that he was portrayed to be by the national media after the punch heard ‘round the world after the Oregon vs. Boise State game. I have enjoyed my locker room conversations with Blount, who is a humble, confident young man that has seemed to learn a lot from that incident. He’s not a bad guy. He just made a bad mistake.
On Monday, we talked privately about how he, Mike Williams and Josh Freeman have the talent and the good head start to rewrite the Bucs’ rushing, receiving and passing records and be remembered as the best at their position in Tampa Bay. That seemed important for Blount. He’s less concerned about stats, but rather about making an impact and being known for greatness.
I thought Blount would have a shot at being a great NFL running back after watching him at Oregon and then seeing him in action in person at the Senior Bowl. After seeing what he’s done in just a few weeks in Tampa Bay, my opinion of him hasn’t wavered one bit. If Blount turns into a perennial 1,000-yard rusher with the Buccaneers and keeps doing positive things like present game balls to his teammates to make people forget the punch in Boise, this will be heck of a comeback story to rival Michael Vick’s.
FAB 2. Part of LeGarrette Blount’s success has to be attributed to the lead blocking of rookie fullback Erik Lorig, who has stepped in admirably for the injured Earnest Graham over the past three weeks. Lorig, who was drafted as a defensive end out of Stanford in the seventh round this past April, was switched to the offensive side of the ball while on the practice squad at the start of the season and has brought size and aggressiveness to the fullback position.
Lorig was so impressive in practice that the Bucs decided to part ways with Chris Pressley, a true lead blocker, a few weeks into the season. According to Bucs running backs coach Steve Logan, Lorig has quickly picked up the fullback position.
“He’s done a nice job and it is the first time he’s played fullback in the NFL,” Logan said. “Making the transition over from being a defensive player to being an offensive player there are lot of assignments. It’s assignment heavy. He’s very physical. That part is not in question. It’s the same thing we’re dealing with with LeGarrette Blount. We’re continuing to press forward and see how much he can take.”
With Lorig hailing from Stanford and having played tight end before, he has the intelligence and background necessary to get the assignments down. Then he can let the physicality of his 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame take over.
“His best quality is his toughness,” Logan said. “Straight ahead, flat out he will hit you and he will stick his face right in a fan. He’s tough. He’s a tough guy. He’s what you want at fullback.”
Aside from getting a crash course in learning how to lead block from Logan, Lorig has also benefitted from the tips and pointers from Graham.
“I’ve been doing it for a few weeks now and I’m getting the hang of it,” Lorig said. “I’m definitely still learning. E.G. has always helped me out in practice and on the sidelines when I’m playing. I look forward to getting more opportunities. There is not one thing I like about blocking more than anything else.”
Graham, who had to make his own sudden switch to fullback after being a running back for most of his career, can relate to what Lorig has had to do. When B.J. Askew was placed on injured reserve during the 2008 campaign, Graham was pressed into service during midseason.
“That’s part of this game, man,” Graham said. “I’ve been in his shoes where you have to switch positions all of a sudden. That’s just how this league goes. All of a sudden you’re playing a role you’re not used to when injuries happen. You’ve got to roll with the punches.
“I think he’s done real well. He’s a real good athlete and he’s been making some real good plays for us on special teams, which is why he’s dressing. He definitely has all the talent in the world to be a really good fullback. I just talk to him about being under control and being in rhythm. The assignments – he’s a Stanford guy, so he’s smart. The last thing he has to worry about is assignments. I’m just trying to get him to understand the rhythm and flow of the position.”
Despite not having Graham, the team’s starting fullback, in the lineup, Blount has rushed for a combined 209 yards and one touchdown on 35 carries (5.9 avg.) with Lorig serving as the lead blocker in some situations in the three games Graham has missed.
“Lorig goes in there and does everything right,” Blount said. “He knew what he was supposed to do and I think that will open up more opportunities for him to play more often and get more opportunities. He’s a special teams guy, also.”
Blount has been impressed with Lorig’s stamina and aggressiveness.
“He has a motor, man,” Blount said. “He doesn’t ever get tired. They’ve used him here on offense, defense and special teams and not once have I seen him take a deep breath. He does whatever the coach tells him what to do and he does it well.”
Once Graham returns to the lineup, possibly against San Francisco this week, it is unsure if Lorig will remain at fullback or be moved back to tight end.
“Management makes those decisions about if he’ll stay a fullback,” Logan said. “I just coach whoever they send me 100 miles an hour.”
As long as Lorig is on the field, it doesn’t matter if he is covering kicks, serving as a lead blocker, playing tight end or even rushing the passer.
“I’m just a football player, basically. That’s how I think about it,” Lorig said. “I just want to get on the field and hit somebody.”
Graham, who will be 32 in January, thinks that Lorig has the potential to be the future of the position.
“He’s an animal and he plays that way,” Graham said. “You turn on the film and he’s a wrecking crew. At fullback he has real potential, but he has to have control and pick your spots where you are aggressive. There is a flow that comes with playing on the offensive side of the ball that he needs to learn, but so far he’s been great. He just needs more reps.”
While the versatile Graham will be welcomed back to the starting lineup with open arms, Lorig has played so well in Graham’s absence that he may wind up taking some reps away from him down the stretch.
FAB 3. The Bucs have been fortunate to not only have one seventh-round pick pan out and start, they have seen two seventh-rounders contribute regularly to the team’s success this year. Erik Lorig’s aggressive blocking on offense has been just as impressive as the aggressive tackling by Cody Grimm, a seventh-round safety drafted out of Virginia Tech.
Grimm was pressed into service in the starting lineup in Week 3 against Pittsburgh after Tanard Jackson’s year-long suspension was issued by the league. Grimm struggled a bit in that game, notably giving up a long touchdown catch by Mike Wallace in the first quarter, but has played really sound football ever since and kept an experienced veteran like Sabby Piscitelli at bay.
“We have confidence in Sabby, and I have confidence in Corey Lynch as well,” said Bucs secondary coach Jimmy Lake. “It’s just that the other two guys were playing really good at the beginning of the season and we wanted them to gel a little bit at the beginning of the season. Sean [Jones] and Cody have gelled together, but moving forward we’ll rotate guys because at the end of the day you need three safeties. Somebody is going to get banged up and we want to keep those guys fresh.”
When the Bucs have gone to three safeties, it’s usually been Jones who gets subbed out for Piscitelli – not Grimm, the rookie. Despite being just 6-foot, 205 pounds, Grimm packs a wallop when he hits ballcarriers, and may be the surest tackler on defense behind only veteran cornerback Ronde Barber.
“You know how it’s been around here with us always liking to use three safeties,” Lake said. “When we go up against teams with bigger backs we wanted to get another body in there to take some hits and help our safeties a little bit. You’ll see us continue to do that throughout the season. We know we can’t play with just two safeties the whole season, but Cody is doing a really good job for us and doesn’t need to be taken off the field too much.”
Grimm, who is the son of Hall of Famer, former Washington Redskins offensive lineman and current Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Russ Grimm, has an outstanding football I.Q. and instincts to go along with his above average athleticism. Grimm used his intellect to make an early, favorable impression on Lake and the Bucs coaching staff that played a huge role in him starting over the more experienced Piscitelli when Jackson was suspended in Week 3.
“Installation in OTAs, norminally they get all of the information in the morning and then we go out and practice it,” Lake said. “Cody figured out that we had the installation done the night before. So Cody would call me the night before practice and say, ‘Coach Lake, can you tell me what we’re putting in practice tomorrow?’ I said okay. He had the playbook. I would say we’re putting in this, this, this and this, and he wrote it down. Then he’s in his hotel room at night studying it so then the next morning everybody else is getting it for the first time and he’s already studying it the night before. That was something he did every single day. He would call me and want to know what we were going to install.”
Grimm not only had the intellect to quickly absorb the playbook, but displayed the intellectual curiosity to want to get ahead.
“Of course on the practice field if you tell him something, he knows it,” Lake said. “He had that Tanard Jackson-like quality where he already knew what you wanted and you didn’t have to go into it. Some other guys are real robotic.”
With 38 tackles and two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown at Cincinnati, Grimm is turning out to be a real steal in the seventh round for the Buccaneers. When scouting him for the draft, Lake liked the combination of Grimm’s competitiveness, athleticism intellect and instincts. The fact that he came from a football household gave Grimm some of the intangibles that made up for his lack of ideal size.
“It has to be a combination of that and the fact that he played in a big conference in college,” Lake said. “He was playing against NFL prospects so it wasn’t like he was from a Division II school coming up to the big leagues. I think his dad and that whole atmosphere he was around had to make him the cool kid that he is.”
Bucs head coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris takes pride in finding diamonds in the rough in the secondary on the second day of the draft, and believes he and general manager Mark Dominik found another one in Grimm.
“Mike Tomlin and I always used to call ourselves the second-day assassins regarding safeties,” Morris said. “We would always try to find our jewels at the safety position on the second day of the draft. Guys like Jermaine Phillips and Donte Nicholson. We really liked Donte and tried to make him one of those second-day guys. At the time, Will Allen was one of those guys. Tanard Jackson really came to us as a fourth-rounder and played a big role here.
“We always try to pride ourselves for finding those little gems – those guys like Cody Grimm that you pick up in the seventh round – and they somehow wind up on the field for you.”
FAB 4. Another gem that the Buccaneers have stumbled upon has been rookie guard Ted Larsen, who was drafted by New England in the sixth round this past April. Like rookie running back LeGarrette Blount, Larsen was claimed off the waiver wire during the final roster cutdowns in September.
Larsen’s combination of brains and brawn fit the mold of a Tampa Bay offensive lineman, and his competitiveness became apparent after he was asked to start at left guard against St. Louis when veteran starter Keydrick Vincent was injured. Larsen’s level of play has been so high that the Bucs waived Vincent the following week and kept him in the starting lineup for four games.
The Bucs had planned on reinserting Jeremy Zuttah into the starting lineup once Jeff Faine was fully healthy and resuming his position as the team’s starting center. But Larsen has helped the offense average 21.8 points per game and 354 yards per game, including an average of 140 rushing yards per game. During Tampa Bay’s first five games without Larsen in the lineup, the Bucs averaged only 14.6 points, 306 yards of total offense and 91 rushing yards per game.
Of course all of that increased production cannot be attributed to Larsen alone, but he has more than shored up the play of the left guard along the offensive line – outside of a couple false start penalties.
“He’s a guy that wasn’t here in training camp or OTAs or any of that,” said Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson. “I thought it was a great pick up by management to pick that guy up. We liked him in the draft and the fact that we were able to get him when we did and get him on our football team and for him to absorb what he had to knowledge-wise just speaks to how intelligent he is. He’s a tough player. He’s an athletic, tough kid. We’re happy to have him.”
Larsen, who hails from nearby Palm Harbor, is a man of few words and generally let’s his play do the talking. But he couldn’t help but be excited when the hometown Buccaneers picked him up once he was released by New England.
“I grew up a Bucs fan, and throughout the draft process I never thought I would come back here,” Larsen said. “I ended up doing it and it’s worked out pretty well. I like having my family close. Otherwise, it’s not anything different than playing in any other city. Football is football.”
Larsen credits the professional atmosphere that prevailed in Bill Belichick’s New England program for laying the foundation for his NFL career in OTAs and in training camp.
“I think it was a very good intro in the NFL and it’s really carried over,” Larsen said. “It’s helped me get off to a quick start here in Tampa.”
FAB 5. Here are some things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Tampa Bay started seven rookies (wide receiver Arrelious Benn, free safety Cody Grimm, left guard Ted Larsen, fullback Erik Lorig, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Dekoda Watson, wide receiver Mike Williams) against Carolina in the team’s 31-16 win. The Bucs became the first team to start seven rookies and win a game since Dallas beat Jacksonville, 21-19, on November 24, 2002. The Bucs also played several other rookies, including running back LeGarrette Blount, punter Robert Malone, wide receiver Preston Parker, offensive tackle Derek Hardman and defensive tackle Al Woods – four of which were undrafted.
“We’re basically starting eight rookies when you look at this football team,” said Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson. “I don’t know in modern day football when that’s ever happened before. Most teams rarely keep eight rookies and the fact that we’re starting really eight rookies when you count Preston Parker in the Zebra package – it’s a credit to the players and their preparation and competitiveness. We’re excited that they improve every week and they have great attitudes. There is a great amount of pride in our rookie plays. In that rookie class, they lean on each other. They know we have some veterans on this team that are counting on them to win games and they have responded well.”
• In an effort to play better against the run and hold up against trapping guards and centers, Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes has added some weight this year. After coming into the NFL as a sixth-round pick weighing 215 pounds, Hayes has hit the weight room hard, especially this offseason after the 2009 campaign ended with Hayes needing shoulder surgery.
“Last year I was playing around 220, but this year I am more like 234-236,” Hayes said. “I’m still fast as hell. I put on the weight the right way. I put a lot of work in during the offseason – the whole offseason after my surgery.
“Shoulder surgery kind of slowed me down a little bit, but I think most of my weight has come on in my lower body. I really worked my lower body hard. I got faster as a result.”
Hearing Hayes say he’s faster as a result of the weight gain is one thing, but his production has actually dipped.
• The emergence of Buccaneers rookie LeGarrette Blount has all but taken away the need for general manager Mark Dominik to spend a first-round pick on a running back. If Blount had his druthers, he would love to see Tampa Bay pick former Oregon teammate LaMichael James, a smallish, 5-foot-9 speedy back with great quickness and surprising toughness.
“He may look small, but he’s probably about 192 pounds,” Blount said. “He’s a thick guy. He has thick legs and blazing speed. You won’t ever see anyone run him down. I would put money on that. In order to tackle him, you actually have to wrap him up even though he’s a smaller back. He has great change of direction.
“He will get the ball and wherever he sees fit to run the ball he will. He’s fearless. He actually has the power to run guys over, but they are so afraid of his elusiveness that they just stand there and wait until he comes to them, and by the time he gets there it’s too late. If he would come out this season, he would definitely be a first-round draft pick.”
Blount and James were destined to split carries last year at Oregon, but Blount’s suspension, which caused him to miss all but three games, allowed James to emerge as a feature back, rushing for 1,546 yards and 14 touchdowns on 203 carries (6.7 avg.). This year, James, who is a sophomore, is in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race with 1,422 yards and 17 touchdowns on 225 carries (6.3 avg.) to help Oregon go undefeated.
Most NFL scouts have Alabama senior Mark Ingram as the top-rated running back, but if James decides to come out that could change.
“LaMichael is the best running back in the nation,” Blount said. “He has as much balance as Ingram. Ingram probably outweighs him by 20 pounds, but they both have power. It’s just that Ingram has a better NFL body type. He is a nice-sized running back. He didn’t win the Heisman for no reason. He’s definitely Heisman Trophy-worthy. I think if LaMichael continues to play the way he’s playing, I think he might win it this year.”
• I asked another Buccaneers rookie to weigh in on a pro prospect – one that Tampa Bay could use next year on defense, which is probably where the team will go with its first- and second-round picks. Left guard Ted Larsen played with one of the better middle linebacker prospects in the nation at North Carolina State in Nate Irving, a muscle-bound, 6-foot-1, 231-pound specimen. Irving has compiled 200 tackles, 37 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, four interceptions, including a one for a touchdown in his career.
“He’s a physical specimen,” Larsen said. “He’s a big guy, a strong guy. He had a car accident that caused him to miss all last year and I think he’s bounced back from that pretty well. He’s a real physical guy that leads by example. I think the whole defense kinds of feeds off him. He has some swagger and I think he pulls it off. He makes plays. He’s a playmaker. He’s had his share of interceptions and some he ran back for touchdowns. He’s come up big and has played through injuries. I think he’s maturing and turning into a great football player.”
After missing out on Brandon Spikes in the second round last year (yeah, I’m talking to you, Mark Dominik), Irving would be a good pick up in the second round in 2011 as the Bucs need to become more stout against the run at the middle linebacker position. Oh, did I mention that Irving set a school record with eight tackles for loss against Wake Forest last year?
Wearing number 56 at North Carolina State, his play kind of resembles that of a young Hardy Nickerson. And there’s nothing wrong with finding another Nickerson, right Bucs fans?
• And finally, I just want to thank our Pewter Insider subscribers for their support this season and for putting up with a website re-launch that had its share of problems – more than we anticipated or expected back in September. It as inconvenient and annoying as things like login issues and the message boards have been for you, they have been even more troublesome for me, and for the Pewter Report staff.
Dealing with our web developer and the issues we have experienced with the website has been time-consuming and taken me away from writing more frequent SR’s Fab 5 columns, and for that I apologize. At the same time, I have been putting a good deal of post-game analysis into my new What We Learned column on Mondays. Judging by the amount of views it receives each week, it’s been quite popular.
Now that the new, improved message boards are up and some of the major fixes have taken place, I can put more of my focus back on the editorial side rather than the publishing side and I hope to produce more frequent SR’s Fab 5 columns in the future. My hope too is that we can win back any Pewter Report subscribers who have been disappointed with the new website and message boards with some of the improvements that we’ve made and our content.
As publisher, I take full responsibility for the problems we’ve had with PewterReport.com, and fixing them has been my sole purpose since September. Trust me when I say that I won’t rest until the website is consistently operating at high level.