No unit on a football team needs to play with chemistry and mesh together like an offensive line. Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter has gone on record saying that he wants the five best offensive linemen on the field.
But there is a problem with that – and it’s actually a good problem.
Koetter and the Bucs actually have six linemen that they consider to be the best. Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson man the tackle positions, and Ali Marpet moved from right guard to center to make way for J.R. Sweezy.
Kevin Pamphile was the starter at left guard in 2016 and was hoping to have a big season, as he’s entering a contract year. But Pamphile missed some time in training camp and the preseason and that allowed Evan Smith, the team’s reserve guard and center, to gain some ground – and some playing time this season.
Bucs LG Evan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
This year, the Bucs are bucking the trend and actually platooning Pamphile and Smith at the left guard position.
“I perceive it as an opportunity,” said the 31-year old Smith, who is in the final year of his contract and has a $4.5 million cap charge this season. “When I’m out on the field I have to take advantage of it. I control what I can control. It is one of those things where it isn’t our call. I have no problem with what they’re doing. It’s been working well. The biggest thing is taking advantage of opportunities when we are in there. I don’t know if it’s making the level of play better, but we are getting the job done right now. We are doing a good job of it. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
Pamphile has been the starter in three of the Bucs’ four games with the Vikings game in Week 2 being the lone exception. However, Smith has played more snaps 139-121 through four games.
Bucs vs. Bears
Starter: Pamphile – 33 plays – 46 percent
Reserve: Smith – 38 plays – 54 percent
Bucs at Vikings
Starter: Smith – 29 plays – 55 percent
Reserve: Pamphile – 24 plays – 45 percent
Bucs vs. Giants
Starter: Pamphile – 25 plays – 39 percent
Reserve: Smith – 39 plays – 61 percent
Bucs vs. Patriots
Starter: Pamphile – 39 plays – 54 percent
Reserve: Smith – 33 plays – 46 percent
“A lot of it is, as a group, we’ve played a lot together,” Smith said. “I know J.R. is like new getting into the lineup this year, but the rest of us have all played together. Communication has gone pretty well. I’ve played next to Donovan before, too. In all honesty, it’s just one of those things, when they told us they were going to do it, it doesn’t matter who is in there or what they decide to do. Whoever is in there has to play at a high level. We hold each other to that standard. It may be out of our hands, but whoever is out on the field we hold ourselves to the standards we’ve set as a line.”
Left tackle Donovan Smith said there haven’t been any issues with Pamphile and Smith switching series. The results bear that out as Tampa Bay has the sixth-ranked offense, averaging 374 yards per game.
Bucs LG Kevin Pamphile – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
“They are obviously both great players for them to be swapping like that,” Smith said. “It just speaks volumes to the guys we have in our room because there isn’t a drop off with either one of them in there. They both do a great job of communicating and we practice that. We understand it and we’re ready to go out there and play.”
Obviously, both Pamphile and Evan Smith would love to be the sole starter at left guard, but are taking the split role in stride. Pamphile, who is 26, is playing for a second contract in Tampa Bay or elsewhere, and the fact that he is platooning with Smith likely hurts his draft stock.
“You have to just take it how it is,” Pamphile said. “The best thing to do right now is just go out there and play the best game you can. You have no control over that. What I can control is how hard I play for the team. It’s whatever.”
Pamphile said he isn’t thinking about his contract during the season.
“All I’m worried about is making sure we win,” Pamphile said. “Going into your fourth year you have seen essentially everything – almost everything going against certain guys. I feel comfortable at this point compared to my rookie year where it was like bullets are flying and you don’t know what to do. I feel really comfortable going out there and really understanding what’s going on.”
Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said that it’s only fair to both players to platoon Pamphile and Smith because of how well they are playing.
“Both are good football players,” Monken said. “It’s a benefit to have a couple guys that you feel good about going in the game and so I think – as long as they keep playing at a high level and you’re capable of rotating them, eventually down the road you’re going to need them all. You’d like to be able to find a way, if you’re the next offensive lineman or you have a seventh lineman you could get him some snaps. Caleb [Benenoch] is not as far along, but whenever we have a chance to get Evan in and get him some more reps – it’s tough during the week because you don’t have a ton of reps. Your practice reps are very limited. Luckily they played at a very high level in the games.”
Smith said that there are some unexpected benefits from sharing time at left guard with Pamphile.
“I think it does two things,” Smith said. “It helps our depth because we’re keeping with the rotation. If something were to happen to somebody else I could go play a different spot, too. Game shape-wise it keeps us all in shape.
Bucs LG Evan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“It also just keeps you in the game more. As a backup you can prepare for three spots that mentally, you know you’re going to have to play. You always prepare as a starter, but now you know you’re going out there. You can prepare better knowing what to hone in on. Everything else changes knowing we might have to shuffle.”
Pamphile and Smith don’t just randomly go in the game. Bucs offensive line coach George Warhop has a plan for the platooning left guards.
“They let us know,” Smith said. “They tell us before the game so that we have an idea. Right now it has been about every two series or something like that. I can’t remember. They have it all figured out. They basically just say, ‘You go in or he goes in.’ If you go in you get warmed up real quick.”
Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter indicated that the platooning may continue all season or may end this week depending on the level of play.
“It was pretty even again last week and as we’ve discussed before, that really wasn’t the plan,” Koetter said. “It just kind of started that way and it has continued. Knock on wood we’ve stayed healthy. As I just mentioned, several teams have not. One of the byproducts of that is you’re developing depth. We will see how it goes. We don’t have to be in a big hurry to decide that. When one guy separates it will be obvious to everybody and when that happens we will make the move full-time.”
Bucs center Ali Marpet has been impressed with the professionalism that both Smith and Pamphile have displayed.
“It’s a hard thing to do,” Smith said. “One thing about O-line is you need to be able to get into a rhythm. When you are rotating it’s hard to get into that rhythm. It says a lot about them that they are both able to play at a high level without consistently playing the entire game. I think it speaks to both of their levels of play.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th 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 spent six years 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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