With a 6-foot-4, 219-pound frame, Bucs rookie wide receiver doesn’t have to do much to get noticed on the football field.
But it’s the things that Stovall has done with his frame and playmaking ability that have allowed Tampa Bay’s third-round draft pick to really stand out during the first two days of rookie mini-camp.
“I like what I see,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Stovall. “We liked what we saw on his college tape, and that’s why he’s here. His initial debut has been very positive. He’s a big target, a quick study and he loves to compete and play. We’ve got a long way to go to get him ready to compete at this level, but he does have a lot of good traits.”
Stovall has spent his first two days at One Buccaneer Place trying to get acclimated to the NFL, which he admits is much different than playing in college.
“I think it’s everything, top to bottom,” Stovall said of the differences between playing in college and the NFL. “Anything from rules all the way up to finishing plays in practice. The practice format is different. Obviously, there is a big difference in size and speed. It definitely is more intense.”
Intense also would be a good way to describe Stovall’s senior season at Notre Dame. After catching just 45 passes for 784 yards and six touchdowns in his first three seasons at Notre Dame, Stovall exploded onto the scene as a senior in new head coach Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense by hauling in 69 passes for 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns.
According to Gruden, the change in offensive philosophy gave Stovall the opportunity to better showcase his talents, and he took full advantage of it.
“It’s the same thing that happened to [Notre Dame quarterback] Brady Quinn – they changed offenses and became much more wide open,” Gruden said. “No disrespect to the system they were in, but they threw the ball. He had numerous opportunities, and I think Charlie Weis did a great job with him. He got his weight down to play a new role in the offense. He’s in great shape, and he’s got talent. The opportunities and the style in which they used him had a lot to do with his explosion onto the scene last year.”
Stovall joins a crowded position on the Bucs roster, which features wide receivers Michael Clayton, Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard, Edell Shepherd, Larry Brackins, Paris Warren, J.R. Russell and Mark Jones.
The Bucs have lined up Stovall, 21, at the flanker (Z-receiver) spot during their first two rookie mini-camp practices, and he apparently has been a quick study and shown some versatility.
“He’s going to be a flanker here,” Gruden said of Stovall. “I think his range as a football player will allow him to play split-end (X-receiver) in three-receiver sets. He’s a real bright kid. He’s still very young, and that’s a real statement for him to come in here and learn our stuff as quick as he has, not just at one position, but two and three.”
What has helped Stovall quickly begin to digest Gruden’s playbook is his familiarity with the West Coast system, which is a similar style of offense that his former head coach at Notre Dame, Ty Willingham, used to run with the Fighting Irish.
“Coach Willingham’s offense was similar, but Coach Gruden uses different terms and some different route combinations,” said Stovall. “But I do recognize some of the things from being coached by Coach Willingham.”
While he admits that he genuinely enjoys studying football and his playbook, Stovall also credited his coaches at Notre Dame for helping him grasp Weis’ offense quickly enough to have such a tremendous impact on offense in 2005.
“It was the type of coaching I had and the way they explained it to me, and learning the concepts instead of just learning the plays,” said Stovall. “It also has a lot to do with just getting in your playbook late at night or while you’re eating, or whenever you possibly can, to make sure you go over it and over it. It’s just like taking an exam.”
At first glance, one would think it would be unlikely that Stovall would manage to crack the starting lineup in Tampa Bay with Clayton, Galloway and Hilliard under contract, but Gruden suggested Saturday that part of the reason the Bucs invested a third-round pick in Stovall was so the team could have competition, and perhaps an insurance policy, for Clayton, who struggled mightily last year after making an impressive debut as a rookie.
“We need to get heavy at flanker,” said Gruden. “Our flanker, number 80, I call him Interstate 80, needs to explode back to the scene that he needs to be on,” Gruden said referring to Clayton. “If we’re top-heavy at flanker, we sure didn’t show that last year. Michael was hurt a lot last year, and it hurt our football team. This is a great football player that we need to get a lot more out of. If something does happen or he’s not ready to go, we hope Maurice Stovall, Ike Hilliard and Edell Shepherd – we hope we have the firepower to get things done without him. We’re counting on him coming back and really making a statement this year and really improving our offensive team.”
While the Bucs would like him to push Clayton back into form, Stovall plans to lean on the veteran receivers, including Clayton, so that he can make a significant impact on offense as soon as this year.
“I think I can learn everything from those guys,” said Stovall. “I can talk to them about how it was for them as a rookie to how it is in the NFL in terms of game-like situations, to how you take care of your body all season long. Even the older guys that are out here now are helping me understand some of the plays and concepts.”
Stovall caught 114 career passes for 1,933 yards and 17 touchdowns in 44 career games at Notre Dame. But if he doesn’t earn a job as one of Tampa Bay’s top three receivers this year, Stovall will be expected to make a significant impact on special teams, which is something he seems willing to do.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to get on the field, contribute and help this team win,” said Stovall. “If that means playing on special teams, I’ll do it. I’m going to do whatever the coaches ask me to do, and then it’s up to me to do it well.”
Last season, Stovall played under a great head coach and offensive mind in Weis, who left his post as the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator to become Notre Dame’s head coach in 2005. Although it’s still early, Stovall already is getting a good feel for what Gruden is like.
“He’s very intense all of the time, whether it’s early in the morning or late at night,” Stovall said of Gruden. “You can tell that he loves the game because he’s doing football 24 hours, seven days a week. I can see that already just from being here two days. I’m looking forward to being coached by him. From what I hear, this isn’t anything how he usually acts. I heard he really heats up at training camp.”
If Stovall continues to catch on as quickly as he has in his first two days on the practice field, competition at the wide receiver position could heat up with Gruden at training camp.
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