Buccaneers Searching For New Kickoff Returner

October 31 – Tampa Bay will be making a change on their kick return team, but depending on what happens this Sunday in Green Bay, the move may only be temporary. Buccaneers rookie CB Dwight Smith will not be returning kickoffs for a while. Instead, Tampa Bay will use the rest of this week in practice to see what RB Aaron Stecker, WR Frank Murphy and WR Reidel Anthony can do.

Tampa Bay's kickoff return team has never had the best reputation. After all, the Buccaneers' return team has never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in team history. That's right, 1,510 and counting. Tampa Bay thought rookie CB Dwight Smith might be able to be the guy to finally end that dreadful streak, but one has to able to field kickoffs cleanly in order to have a chance to return one for a touchdown. Smith has not been able to do that this season and it has cost him his starting job.

"It's a mental thing right now," said head coach Tony Dungy. "Dwight (Smith) has good hands and can catch the ball. There's no physical reason why he's not catching it right now. We just have to let him relax and concentrate on other things right now."

Smith has had some success returning kickoffs this season. He came close to returning a kickoff for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers in Week 4, but was tackled for a 45-yard return.

Smith's inability to field kickoffs cleanly has contributed to some of the offense's struggles this season. Tampa Bay has an average starting field position of their own 23 yard line, which is ranked 28th in the NFL.

Bucs P Mark Royals shed some light on what Smith might be going through and concurred with Dungy's thoughts about Smith's problems being psychological and not physical. Royals thinks Smith is a capable kickoff returner.

"If you start dropping the ball here and there, it's something that can definitely start messing with your mind," said Royals. "But he's out there trying to practice and improve. If he's not doing it this week, I wouldn't be surprised to see him doing later down the road this year."

Dungy has narrowed his list of kickoff return candidates, but is certain Smith will not be doing it for a while.

"We'll look at Frank (Murphy) and Reidel Anthony," said Dungy. "Now, Reidel has not been 100 percent in terms of health, so we might be hesitant to use him for another week or so. But I would say Aaron (Stecker) and Frank would be the leading candidates right now."

Wide receiver Frank Murphy is the quickest of those three players. Both Stecker and Anthony have more experience returning kicks in the NFL, but Murphy had plenty of opportunities doing it in college at Kansas State University.

"I think they're all capable," said Royals. "Dwight sees the field well and is a strong runner. He's just struggled a little bit with fielding the ball cleanly, which could be a confidence thing-I don't know. Frank Murphy runs the ball extremely well is always a step away from breaking one. He's got the speed. Aaron Stecker fields the ball well and has a good burst. So, if he has a hole, he can get through it."

Murphy has had one opportunity to return a kickoff this season and made the most of it. Murphy broke a kickoff 34-yards against Pittsburgh and was one player away from making history for the Pewter Pirates.

Although Dungy will not make a decision on who will be Tampa Bay's primary kickoff returner for Sunday's game against the Packers, he might be leaning toward Stecker for a few different reasons. Stecker grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin and also has kickoff return experience. Last season, Stecker averaged 22.9 yards per return on 29 attempts.

"Aaron has done a good job in everything we've asked him to do," said Dungy. "He's from up there and I'd think that is a psychological boost for him to play at home. You want to get guys in those situations the ball when you can."

Copyright 2001 Buccaneer Magazine/BucMag.com

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