This time last year fullback B.J. Askew was attempting to digest Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden's playbook and get to know his new teammates after signing a two-year contract with the Buccaneers.
While Gruden's playbook has remained relatively the same, some of the things around One Buccaneer Place haven't, or at least not from Askew's perspective.
Tampa Bay's offensive backfield looks a little different. For starters, the Bucs have a new running backs coach. Richard Bisaccia, who has served as Tampa Bay's special teams coordinator since 2002, took on the running backs coach and associate head coaching title this offseason after Art Valero departed for St. Louis.
According to Askew, Tampa Bay's running backs like what they have seen from Bisaccia so far.
"We like Rich," said Askew. "He's always been a guy that's been a straight shooter. He won't steer you in the wrong direction. He came to me and said, ‘Okay, this is what we need to work on and this is what you weren't good at last year.' I just said, ‘Okay, that's cool.' He hasn't taken the approach of trying to be everyone's friend. He's trying to make us better and even making guys like Warrick Dunn work on technique and the details. As players we like that."
In addition to the coaching change, Cadillac Williams is rehabbing the torn patellar tendon he suffered in Week 4 of the 2007 regular season. Michael Pittman is an unrestricted free agent and Mike Alstott is retired.
The Buccaneers have also been active in free agency in terms of landing running backs, re-signing Michael Bennett and inking Warrick Dunn to a two-year, $6 million deal.
Despite the fact that Tampa Bay's backfield currently includes Bennett, Dunn and RB Earnest Graham, and could feature another back if the Bucs opt to select a running back in the 2008 NFL Draft, Askew isn't concerned about getting on the field next season.
"I'm not worried about that at all," said Askew. "Coach Gruden knows what I can do. He knows he has an ace in the hole. I can do whatever he wants. I'm not vocal about anything like that. I'm glad to be playing and I don't mind blocking on every play if that's what is needed of me. Of course I want to get the ball in my hands, but I've matured a lot since my first two years and at this point I just want to win a championship."
Askew helped the Bucs improve from 4-12 in 2006 to 9-7 in 2007 en route to winning the NFC South division title. Tampa Bay hopes to become the first team to win the NFC South title in back-to-back seasons, but that's not the team's only goal.
The Buccaneers are well aware of the fact that Super Bowl XLII will be played in Tampa in 2009. Askew and the Bucs want to become the first team to ever play in a Super Bowl in their own backyard.
"That's a dream. I get goose bumps just thinking about it," Askew said as he stared at Raymond James Stadium from the practice field at One Buc Place. "I feel like this team is close, very close. To make it to the Super Bowl and play it in your own backyard – that would be special and that's what we're trying to do.
"It's never been done before where the home team actually plays in that city. I like the feel in this locker room right now. We definitely have huge expectations. We'll be a force to deal with as long as we can just keep everyone healthy."
Staying healthy is something Askew struggled to do in his Buccaneer debut last season. He played in just 13 games (nine starts) due to a serious ankle injury he suffered on Nov. 25 vs. Washington.
Despite being injured and at times not even being able to practice during the week leading up to games, Askew still was productive. He caught 18 passes for 175 yards and served as the primary blocker for Graham, who rushed for 898 yards (4.0 avg.) and 10 touchdowns.
"I can't say exactly what it was, but it was pretty bad," Askew said regarding the injury. "That was tough. I originally hurt it against the Redskins. The first few weeks we were just trying to figure out how to play on it, but it wasn't happening. After being able to go out and test it on Sundays I just told them straight up, ‘It doesn't feel good and it hurts.' Adrenaline takes over for that first quarter and a half, but after that I just had to bite down on my mouth piece."
The 6-foot-3, 233-pound Askew earned the respect of his Buccaneer peers for playing through the ankle injury in an effort to help the team make a playoff push. The former New York Jet said he prides himself on being one of the toughest players to play in the NFL thanks to some inspiration from one of his former teammates and a future Hall of Famer.
"[Former New York Jets running back] Curtis Martin was a guy I really looked up to," Askew said when asked about his toughness. "Curtis dealt with a lot of pain and a lot of things people didn't even know about. I just looked at Curtis and said, ‘I want to be tougher than him. I want to be the toughest guy.' I have huge pride in that."
Askew, 27, is hoping the Buccaneers reward his toughness, production and team-first attitude as he's entering the final year of his contract with Tampa Bay and is scheduled to have a cap value of $840,000 in 2008.
Negotiations between the Buccaneers and Askew's agent are ongoing. In the meantime Askew is attempting to remain focused on playing football.
"It's something I think will take care of itself," Askew said of his contract situation. "The Bucs know what they have. It's s a situation where they can sign me now and save themselves some money or they can wait and potentially have to pay me a lot more money [if I hit free agency]. I just leave that to my agent and the Bucs, and just show up ready to work and help this team win."
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