SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place:
FAB 1. The Buccaneers have upgraded the talent on the roster this offseason, but not just the player roster. Tampa Bay also upgraded its coaching staff, notably with the addition of new special teams coordinator Dave Wannstedt.
Wannstedt, who has coached for 38 years in the NFL and college, will help the Buccaneers in more ways than one. Although he is in charge of the team’s kicking game and coverage units, Wannstedt has a past relationship with Greg Schiano and plenty of experience that Tampa Bay’s second-year head coach can draw from.
“I think that is all part of it,” Wannstedt said. “We have the same beliefs as far as what we we’ve got to do. We had a long discussion about what direction Greg is taking the franchise. If you can bounce some things off of someone who has been there that has no motives other than to help the Bucs, I think it’s a good situation. There’s not much that I haven’t seen from Chicago to Pittsburgh to the Dolphins. I think there’s times where we can hopefully talk about some things from my past experience where they can help him make a good decision.
“I trust Greg, and I think he trusts me. This is where I wanted to be. I was excited about the opportunity to come here and be a part of this. I spent much of my coaching career between the University of Miami and the Dolphins. Ten of my coaching years has been in the state of Florida. I felt like it was a place where I wanted to live. At this point of the game for me it comes down to people and believing in people and what someone’s trying to do. Do I feel like I can contribute or be a part of it? Yes.”
The relationship between Wannstedt and Schiano began in 1996 when Wannstedt was the head coach of the Chicago Bears and hired Schiano as a defensive assistant and was promoted to the team’s defensive backs coach in 1998. Wannstedt recalls his time in Chicago with Schiano and is not surprised that he became a successful head coach because of how detailed-oriented he is.
“I’ll tell you exactly what I remember,” Wannstedt said. “He was in charge of our third down package on defense working with the secondary. When it was time to talk third down defense it was the most detailed … he did not have a ‘t’ not crossed and an ‘i’ not dotted. It was his first year coming from Penn State and his first year in the NFL. It didn’t take it long before the players realized that this guy knew what he was doing. He’s not going to put you in a situation where you were going to be surprised by anything. There was no question he was going to be successful.”
When it came time for Schiano to move on and grow as a coach, it came with Wannstedt’s recommendation.
“We moved on from there and Butch Davis called me up,” Wannstedt said. “He was the head coach at the University of Miami and he said he was looking for a defensive coordinator. I said, ‘I got the guy right here.’ That’s how it went from there.”
While outsiders might look at the Buccaneers staff and see it littered with former Rutgers assistants, including assistant defensive coordinator Bob Fraser, safeties coach Jeff Hafley, defensive line coach Randy Melvin, tight ends coach Brian Angelichio, assistant special teams coach Phil Galiano, defensive assistant Tem Lukabu, strength coach Jay Butler, assistant strength coach Bob Gilmartin, new quarterbacks coach John McNulty and new linebackers coach Robb Smith, the connections from the Schiano tree branch off in other directions, too.
The 61-year old Wannstedt coached with Davis, who is a special assistant to Schiano in Tampa Bay, at the University of Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys. Davis was the Hurricanes defensive line coach while Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator from 1986-88, and the two had the same roles in Dallas from 1989-92 before he replaced Wannstedt as the Cowboys coordinator when he moved on to become the head coach in Chicago in 1993.
Schiano was Davis’ defensive coordinator at the University of Miami. Wannstedt hired Hafley to be the defensive backs coach at Pitt before he moved on to Rutgers. Bryan Cox, the team’s pass rush coach, was a Pro Bowl middle linebacker in Chicago when Wannstedt and Schiano coached the Bears.
“I think Greg has done a great job of putting it together from the standpoint of having coaches that have been to the Super Bowl on offense and defense,” Wannstedt said. “He’s got a nice mix of young guys that have been with him that know – probably better than some of the older guys – his philosophy. They’ve been through some of the wins and losses, good times and bad times with him. So he’s surrounded himself with people that he’s known for a while. I think he’s put together a great mix. He doesn’t have a staff of ‘yes men.’ Between Butch, myself and Sully (offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan) he’s got guys that have Super Bowl rings. That’s all part of putting together the right team.”
Despite being a head coach and defensive coordinator – most recently in Buffalo last year – Wannstedt doesn’t look at his job as the Bucs special teams coordinator as a demotion at all.
“As a head coach for 18 years you are involved in all aspects of the game,” Wannstedt said. “To be honest with you in my time as a head coach I’ve probably spent most of my time between meetings and walk-throughs in practice with the special teams part of it. I’m a football coach. I obviously have a relationship with Greg and followed him real close with what was going on here last year and the foundation that was set. When the position became available we obviously talked and I’m excited about coming here and helping him with the special teams and any other way I can be of assistance.”
FAB 2. Former Tampa Bay special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky didn’t have much talent to work with in terms of return specialists, and that’s an area where the Bucs really struggled. Outside from a few returns late in the season, Roscoe Parrish was unspectacular as a punt returner, and Arrelious Benn did little to impress as a kick returner. The Bucs averaged 9.0 yards per punt return last year while opponents averaged 11.0 yards. Tampa Bay was even worse on kickoff returns, averaging 20.3 yards per return, while the team’s foes averaged 25.2 yards.
Wannstedt coached the special teams unit at the University of Pittsburgh, and his intimate knowledge of successful schemes and fiery coaching style have been embraced by the players. Wannstedt, who is one of the most vocal coaches on the practice field, has quickly earned everyone’s respect at One Buccaneer Place.
While special teams may take a back seat on other NFL teams, that’s not the case in Tampa Bay. It kind of seemed like that under Ligashesky last year, though. Ligashesky was a stark departure from the intense, up-tempo style of Rich Bisaccia, who was a favorite with Tampa Bay’s veterans.
Wannstedt brings energy and enthusiasm that seemed to be missing, along with some gravitas that comes from his reputation as a successful NFL and college coach. With Wannstedt on board, the Bucs special teams should rise to the level that Schiano demands of the fourth down units.
“Everybody knows the importance that Greg puts on special teams,” Wannstedt said. “Everywhere he’s been, special teams have been a big part of the team’s success and team emphasis. Hey, maybe we’re not where we want to be today, but it’s not something that’s being slighted or something that is being overlooked. Nobody knows the importance of it more than Greg, and we’re keeping a close eye on it.”
While Wannstedt’s schemes, techniques and coaching style should have a noticeable impact on the team’s return game, so should an infusion of talent.
“The competition is wide open,” Wannstedt said. “We signed [wide receiver Eric] Page, who is a free agent. We have a couple of young kids in [wide receivers David] Douglas and [Chris] Owusu, so we’ve got some guys right now that are all competing. [Running back Michael] Smith, as far as kick returns, he’s competing.
“Until we get the pads on in training camp and get into some preseason games then it will start separating itself. It’s competitive. It’s not a situation where you know right now who our kickoff or punt returner is going to be. In most cases you would like to know if it was a great one. But there’s another side to it when you have great competition. We’ll see what happens, but all the guys are working hard.”
Another candidate for kick and punt return duties should emerge in mid-August when former Florida running back and return specialist Jeff Demps is expected to return from track season.
“Demps, I guess so,” Wannstedt said when asked if he expects the Olympic silver medalist sprinter to make a push for the kick and punt return job. “I don’t know much about that, but he could be if he was here. I’m sure he would be if he were here. He’s done that in the past.”
At Florida, Demps returned 21 kickoffs for 604 yards, including a 99-yard touchdown against Georgia. He also blocked two kicks for the Gators.
Thrown in the fact that Smith averaged 31.7 yards on kick returns last preseason, and had a 74-yard return at Miami last year, and Owusu averaged 27.3 yards returning kicks at Stanford with three touchdowns, and Page scored four touchdowns on kick returns and a punt return for touchdowns at Toldeo and the once empty cupboard has been stocked for Wannstedt. Not only does the veteran coach believe that the Bucs special teams are stocked, he believes Tampa Bay’s entire roster is loaded with very good players.
“We have talented guys,” Wannstedt said. “When you have rookies do what some of the guys did here last year, and I think we have a couple of guys from this rookie class that are going to be factors once we get going. It’s exciting. We’re a young team. We’re a hungry team. Anytime you have that combination you have the chance to be successful.”
It would be shocking if Tampa Bay’s special teams didn’t improve this year under Wannstedt’s leadership.
FAB 3. One of the more suddenly interesting training camp battles to watch is the right tackle competition where incumbent starter Demar Dotson will have to fend off newcomer Gabe Carimi, who was acquired for a sixth-round pick in a trade with Chicago just before Tampa Bay’s mandatory mini-camp last month. Despite Carimi’s first-round draft choice pedigree, Dotson should be viewed as the heavy favorite due to the fact that he started 15 games last year at right tackle for the Bucs and has experience in Mike Sullivan’s offense.
Carimi has to play catch up in training camp, but will have the help of offensive line guru Bob Bostad, who coached him into becoming an Outland Trophy winner at the University of Wisconsin where Carimi was the nation’s best offensive lineman. Carimi’s two-year NFL career has been marred by injury and ineffectiveness, and the Bucs are hoping that his career can be revived with a fresh start with Bostad in Tampa Bay.
Meanwhile, Dotson doesn’t feel any added pressure with Carimi’s arrival.
“It’s no big deal to me,” Dotson said. “I’m not competing with Gabe. I’m competing with me. I don’t have anything against Gabe. Him coming here doesn’t really mean anything to me. It’s not about me and Gabe. It’s about me competing within myself and me getting better.”
The 6-foot-9, 319-pound Dotson plans to build on his first year of extensive playing time in the NFL and keep his starting job. Dotson believes that playing alongside Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph for the first time will enhance is play. Joseph was playing alongside former starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who lost his job at the start of the year, in the third preseason game against New England last year and tore knee ligaments, which cost him the season.
“I haven’t had the chance to really play with Davin yet,” Dotson said. “I’ve been excited to get in there and learn from him. He’s a Pro Bowler. I want to make my game better based on him playing next to me, but he hasn’t been here. I can’t wait for him to come back and play next to the guy.”
Dotson will get that chance in training camp in for the first time when Joseph will be cleared to participate in practice for the first time since last August.
FAB 4. The primary reason why the Buccaneers added some veterans this offseason to challenge Tiquan Underwood for the role of the team’s third wide receiver is because Underwood suffered some dropped passes last year down the stretch. A source tells PewterReport.com that Underwood had been meeting the team’s expectations through the first eight games of the season that he played in with 15 catches for 228 yards and the first two touchdowns of his NFL career.
But after catching a critical 18-yard pass in the closing moments of Tampa Bay’s thrilling, 27-21 overtime win at Carolina, Underwood was drilled in the head by Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who was penalized 15 yards for the illegal hit.
“At the end of the day, P.J. Fleck, our receivers coach, says that every ball is a great, catchable ball,” Underwood said after the game. “Go out there, catch it, take the hit and go on to the next play.”
Over the final six games of the season, Underwood caught 13 passes for 197 yards. In fact, the best game of Underwood’s career came the week after he took Davis’ big hit against Carolina when he had five catches for 77 yards, including a 39-yarder, in a 24-23 home loss to Atlanta.
But while his production remained steady down the stretch, the team believes that the big hit that Underwood received took its toll, and he started to drop more passes. In the first eight games in which Underwood posted a reception last season, he caught 15 of the 24 passes that were thrown his way.
However, over the final six games, Underwood only managed to catch 13 of the 32 throws from quarterback Josh Freeman. That’s not to say that all of those passes were drops or even deemed catchable. But the disparity is something that caught the eye of the Bucs’ brass and concerns the team given Underwood’s history of dropping the ball. That’s why he didn’t stick with either Jacksonville, the team that drafted him in the seventh round in 2009, or New England.
“In this league you are going to be labeled, and I know I’ve been labeled as being a guy that drops passes,” Underwood said at the end of last season. “This past offseason I’ve worked on that so hard and increased my hand strength. I’ve caught a lot of footballs. I’ve come here and I’ve caught a lot more than I’ve dropped, and I’m going to continue to do so. As a receiver in this league your job is to get open and catch the ball. I was told that by Bill Belichick. He said, ‘If you are a receiver in this league, get open and catch the ball.’ That’s my job. Hearing that from him really hit home.”
Underwood’s speed is what makes him special, and he’s regarded as the fastest receiver on the team. There were times this offseason where he shined, catching long touchdown passes on deep bombs from Freeman. But Olgetree was taking most of the reps with the starters as the team’s slot receiver.
With 57 career catches for 730 yards and four touchdowns – 32 receptions for 436 yards and his four scores came in 2012 – in his four years in the NFL, Olgetree has just as much experience and slightly more production than Underwood. But what could help Olgetree, who opened last year with a career-best eight-catch, 114-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 24-17 upset win over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, is that he has an ally Tampa Bay’s new wide receivers coach John Garrett.
Not only did Garrett coach Olgetree in Dallas, he also coached him in college at the University of Virginia. Garrett was instrumental in recruiting Olgetree out of college to play for the Cavaliers, and also recruiting him once more when he signed with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. That favoritism – ahem, familiarity – could make Underwood’s task of keeping his job as the team’s third receiver on the depth chart even more challenging.
What Underwood needs to do in training camp to beat out Olgetree is catch the ball and make plays – just as he did last year when he led the Bucs in receiving in the preseason with nine catches for 158 yards, including a team-high 44-yard reception. However, despite putting up great numbers last August, Underwood was inexplicably released in favor of Preston Parker, who underwhelmed in the preseason.
Bucs general manager Mark Dominik corrected his mistake a few weeks later by re-signing Underwood and cutting Parker, who is currently out of the league. Underwood went on to have a career year and play well for the Bucs.
“I’m just looking to help this team in any way I can,” Underwood said. “The more times you catch the ball and make plays, the more confidence the quarterback has in you. As a receiver, when it comes your way you have to try to catch every one of them and make plays for him.”
The beginning of the Olgetree vs. Underwood training camp battle kicks off on Thursday, July 25 at One Buccaneer Place.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Tampa Bay special teams coordinator Dave Wannstedt coached Bucs pass rush specialist Bryan Cox for two years (1996-97) in Chicago. Cox, who was one of the best blitzing linebackers of his time, collected 51.5 quarterback captures and 22 forced fumbles in his 12-year NFL career. Cox’s presence in Tampa Bay was one of the many reasons why Wannstedt accepted the coaching position with the Buccaneers.
“He’s great,” Wannstedt said. “Bryan brings toughness and professionalism. He was with us and Greg in Chicago. Bryan says it how it is. That’s the type of player he was and that is the type of coach that he is. I think players respect that. Bryan wasn’t the most talented player. In fact, if you looked at him he was probably an overachiever. He was a big, 250-pound linebacker that didn’t run very well. But nobody played harder. Nobody studied the game more. He found ways to be successful in this league. When you talk about coaches that have made it in the NFL as ex-players – guys like Bryan – I think that goes a long way with players.”
• Wannstedt coached new Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis for his junior season at the University of Pitt. As a longtime defensive coordinator at the NFL and college level, Wannstedt knows the value of a shutdown cornerback. Revis, a four-time Pro Bowler, who is coming off a torn ACL that cost him most of the 2012 season, is regarded as the best in the NFL when healthy.
“It all goes together and every coach is going to say that,” Wannstedt said regarding how a team’s pass rush and great play in the secondary help each other. “Statistics have been done, and the press, shutdown corner – when you are trying to get rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds – a corner that can hang that long and create some hesitation for the quarterback or indecision for the quarterback can be the difference between getting a sack and not getting a sack. That’s what shutdown corners can do. That second of not being able to get rid of the ball or getting rid of the ball before they want to is the difference between sacks, interceptions and fumbles.”
• There is air of confidence at One Buccaneer Place that hasn’t been present for quite some time. The Bucs posted a three-win improvement in finishing 7-9 after a 6-4 start to the 2012 season, and were within a touchdown of winning or tying the game in all but two defeats. To say that the Bucs have bought into head coach Greg Schiano’s style of coaching after what was deemed a successful first year is an understatement.
“Last year we were all learning the Schiano way,” Penn said. “Now all of us know it. It’s easier for the coaches because now they can stick to football, and they can say, ‘Do this, do this and do this’ because we already know. Now instead of the coaches [talking about the Schiano way of doing things], we’re doing it because we know. We know what we’re doing and we can go out and execute.”
• Last year, Penn blocked for rookie sensation Doug Martin, who won the starting running back job in training camp and rushed for 1,454 yards and a team-record 11 touchdowns on 319 carries. Rookie linebacker Lavonte David led all Bucs tacklers with 139 tackles, in addition to two sacks and an interception. Rookie safety Mark Barron started all 16 games in Tampa Bay and had 88 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception.
This year, Penn is just as excited about the Bucs’ new rookies, which include cornerback Johnthan Banks, quarterback Mike Glennon and nose tackle Akeem Spence, who has already caught Penn’s eye. Spence made headlines when he and center Jeremy Zuttah got into a fight after the rookie from Illinois got too physical on his first snap during OTAs (organized team activities).
“I thought the rookie (Akeem Spence) did a great job in the way he handled that,” Penn said. “He said he knew it was his fault. It was the first day, and the first day is going to be a little itchy. We talked to him, and I talked to him myself, personally. He’s been great ever since and I love the way he handled it. He’s a very mature person. I told him, ‘I like the way you handled yourself with the media. I know you have that itch. On the first day you have that itch. Now let’s come and get better the right way.’ And he has.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR’s Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys 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: [email protected]
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