Ask Tampa Bay rookie wide receiver Sammie Stroughter what he thinks about winning his first NFL award as he was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week award, and he says, “We lost.”â€¨
Stroughter was surely appreciative of the honor coming after his sixth NFL game where he returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in the Buccaneers’ 28-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers, but it didn’t show on his face Wednesday in Tampa Bay’s locker room due to the team's 0-6 record.
“Although it was a big return that sparked something, when it comes down to it we lost,” Stroughter said. “It’s a bitter taste. It’s one of those things where we look at each other in the mirror, get better and expect even more out of each other.”
Stroughter totaled 142 yards on three kick returns for Tampa Bay in the second half on Sunday, averaging 47.3 yards per return after Clifton Smith was knocked out of the game just before halftime due to a cheap shot by Panthers defensive back Dante Wesley. Stroughter’s 97-yard touchdown tied Smith for the longest return in team history after the Bucs’ Pro Bowl return man raced 97 yards for a touchdown on a kickoff return at Kansas City last year.
If Smith, who sustained a concussion and injured his neck from Wesley’s hit, can’t play against New England this Sunday in London, Stroughter said he’s ready to step in again.
“My prayers and thoughts are going out to Peanut,” Stroughter said. “He’s a fighter. He’s tough. He’s got that California blood in him. I understand his situation. I’m behind him 100 percent. If I get the call, he’ll be behind me 100 percent. That’s the kind of thing we have in this locker room. When somebody goes down it is expected to come up and fill that void.”
Stroughter said that Smith’s injury was on his mind and that he was using that as motivation for his returns against Carolina in the second half when his touchdown keyed Tampa Bay’s comeback and narrowed the score to 21-14.
“I can hear [Smith] coaching me up as I’m going through the whole thing,” Stroughter said. “When he’s out there I’m shadowing him and trying to see what he sees because he’s a great returner. When I’m put out there, I’m a reflection of him and all the guys.”
Stroughter received great blocks from tight end John Gilmore and wide receiver Maurice Stovall among others, and broke tackle attempts by safety Charles Godfrey and kicker John Kasay en route to the end zone in the third quarter.
“That’s the one thing we are taught on any kind of return – you are going to have to make one or two guys miss,” Stroughter said. “The guys did a great job of putting hats on guys and opening it up. It was one of those things where when you see that, you say, ‘I am not getting stopped no matter what.’
“My brother would stay on me, saying ‘Never let one person tackle you.’ That’s one of those things where you’ve been force-fed, force-fed, force-fed, and when it comes up you are determined to run through anything.”
Stroughter, one of the team’s seventh-round draft picks, has been one of the few bright spots during the team’s 0-6 start. The rookie from Oregon State totaled a career-high 207 all-purpose yards against Carolina, including a career-high three catches for 65 yards. Not bad for the 27th receiver taken in the 2009 NFL Draft for being deemed to be too small and too slow by NFL teams despite having 4,299 career all-purpose yards, including 164 career receptions for 2,653 yards and 14 touchdowns, for the Beavers.
“I will always have a chip on my shoulder,” Stroughter said. “Coming from high school to college, I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder. There’s always been a little knock. That’s everybody. You are always looking for something to devalue. I’m a hard worker. I’m going to work hard. I’m going to give you everything I have. I’m not the fastest. I’m not the strongest. But when it comes down to it, I’m going to work my hardest for the team and for everybody else.”
Stroughter’s rookie season is off to a strong start as he is fourth on the team in receiving with 13 catches for 151 yards as the team’s third receiver. Those stats compare favorably with those of Antonio Bryant (14 catches for 178 yards and one touchdown) and Michael Clayton (11 catches for 154 yards).
“He is doing an excellent job of doing what he’s coached to do,” Clayton said of Stroughter. “We’re not asking him to be Randy Moss or anything. His job is strictly to master third down and put himself in position to use his body frame and all that. You kind of look at a receiver like Ike Hilliard and all the success he’s had for so many years, and Sammie is a lot like that. He’s smart enough to learn the position. He’s done an excellent job so far. He’s come a long way. His head is in the right place. He listens. Everything about the guy suggests he’s going to be a great player.”
Given his impressive production, some wonder if Stroughter will see more playing time. The Bucs are open to using Stroughter more on offense, but are also focused on protecting the 5-foot-10, 189-pound receiver.
“You love Sammie Stroughter’s attitude and everything about him,” said Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. “Maybe he’s not as fast as you want him to be, but he’s certainly shifty, he’s tough, he’s a competitor, he can block and when he has the ball in his hands he’s a different guy. Like Coach Mann said, when you have a smaller receive like that you have to find ways to protect him. We’re doing a good job keeping him out of bad situations and putting him in good situations. He’s taken full advantage of it. I’m not sure what he can’t do right now. We saw him do just about everything in OTAs, but you don’t try to protect guys in OTAs. He’s done a great job. I’m proud of him.”
Playing mostly in the slot, Stroughter will have a chance to watch – and learn from – one of the best slot receivers in the business on Sunday in New England’s Wes Welker.
“I’m always trying to learn,” Stroughter said. “I watch film from Ike Hilliard to Wes Welker. I try to watch people from around the league that have mastered it. You are always trying to continue to grow.”
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