Inside The Bucs' Third Mini-Camp: Thursday

June 13 – Pewter Report was at One Buc Place for both of Tampa Bay's Thursday mini-camp practices and has this 2,600-word report with details, insight and observations. Want to know why Rob Johnson has moved in front of Shaun King as the team's second-string quarterback? Is Tampa Bay concerned about WR Keyshawn Johnson's lack of attendance at the team's voluntary workouts? Want Pewter Report's first impressions of WR Keenan McCardell? Pewter Report has the inside scoop from Bucs' mini-camp.

One can't truly appreciate how well conditioned professional football players are and have to be until you experience conditions like the ones that engulfed One Buccaneer Place throughout both of Thursday's practices.

Temperatures were in the mid-90s, but if you listened to both the players and spectators, you could have sworn you heard one of Bruce Willis' infamous lines, "Now I know what a TV dinner feels like", uttered once or twice.

One of the reasons the scorching temperatures were so noticeable was because the Buccaneers do not usually hold a mini-camp at this time of the year. But because Tampa Bay hired a new head coach, the team received an extra mini-camp.

Despite the uncomfortable weather conditions, Tampa Bay put on a pretty good show during Thursday's practices.

The tempo, look and the feel of Tampa Bay's practices looked the same as the first two mini-camps. During Bucs head coach Jon Gruden's first mini-camp, he and his offensive assistants were constantly screaming to the players, "15 seconds". This was Gruden's way of telling his offense that he wanted them to break the huddle, line up on the line of scrimmage and snap the ball in no more than 15 seconds. Well, Gruden's message has apparently been heard and digested because the offense is going through the motions in 15 seconds or less, but without Gruden and Co. having to remind them.

The offensive players, especially the quarterbacks, have made great strides in terms of learning Gruden's system. This is due to all three quarterbacks' full participation in voluntary workouts throughout the offseason.

Gruden worked with quarterbacks Brad Johnson, Rob Johnson and Shaun King on selling fake handoffs during Thursday's first practice. All three did particularly well in this drill.

Bucs QB Brad Johnson lined up with the first-team offense. He still looks impressive throwing out of the pocket and makes good decisions under pressure. His arm strength can be suspect at times, but for what he might lack in that department, Johnson certainly makes up for in his decision-making processes.

The battle behind Brad Johnson probably is the most intriguing battle on the team. Bucs QB Rob Johnson, who Gruden personally recruited via free agency in March, took snaps with the third-team offense in Tampa Bay's first two mini-camps. But on Thursday, Rob Johnson was taking snaps with the second-team offense while QB Shaun King took snaps with the third-team offense. Gruden, who is a big fan of both Rob Johnson and Shaun King, is happy to see the quarterbacks start to separate themselves from one another in terms of competition.

"That's (the quarterback position) getting very interesting," said Gruden. "The guy that's really stepping up is Rob Johnson. Just athletically and from a play-making standpoint, Rob is consistently pushing the right buttons and making the right decisions. I've been impressed with the three quarterbacks and they've been pretty steady from the beginning. We need that to be strength of our football team. We have a long way to go to get it where we want it to be, but they are working at it."

This is not to say Gruden does not like King because he certainly made it clear that he was impressed with King's intangibles and play-making ability when he first arrived in Tampa. But Gruden and Co. would like to see King perform better more consistently.

"He (King) has his moments where he's very impressive," said Gruden. "He's an athletic guy and he's got a quick and accurate arm. He just has to deal with adversity at times a little bit better. He can't allow one bad play to become three bad plays. He has to improve his overall consistency, which I know he will do. He's a good football player and he's going to be a real competitor for that job."

Bucs punter Tom Tupa, who has some significant quarterback experience in the NFL, took preliminary reps as the team's fourth-string/emergency quarterback during Thursday morning's practice. It's too early to tell how Tupa is performing in Tampa Bay's offense, but the Bucs are hoping they don't have to see him in a regular season game since his appearance would mean the three veterans in front of him would have suffered some sort of injury.

All three quarterbacks faced some heavy blitz packages from Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's defense during both practices, which translated into several sacks. The blitzes ranged from corner blitzes to linebacker blitzes, to safety blitzes. At times, a combination of two or all three were executed.

"We did a lot of blitz work today and put the offense in a tough position," said Gruden. "The defense is very competitive. We're making strides and they're getting more familiar with what we're asking them to do."

At running back, Michael Pittman continued to perform well. He has displayed great awareness and a quick and relentless running style throughout the offseason and that certainly didn't change on Thursday. Pittman has also showed impressive stamina. He carried the bulk of the carries on Thursday, but never appeared winded at any point during the practices.

Bucs fullback Mike Alstott received more carries in the afternoon than he did in the morning. Tampa Bay still is defining his role in its offense, and the A-Train showed he is a capable runner by bursting through a hole opened up by his offensive line on the far field at One Buc Place during the second practice. Alstott sprinted about 45-yards up the field and into the end zone for a touchdown.

Tampa Bay running back Byron Hanspard ran a precise route up the middle of the field, but when King fired the ball right into his stretched out hands, he dropped it. It's probably safe to say Hanspard heard footsteps coming as he would have been sandwiched between three Buc defenders.

Bucs fullback Jameel Cook looks like he has added some size since the Bucs' last mini-camp. Cook has a stocky frame and he has continued to impress the coaching staff with his lead-blocking abilities. But Cook also has impressive pass-catching ability and both he and the other backs got plenty of reps catching the ball out of the backfield on Thursday.

Bucs RB Aaron Stecker fumbled during 11-on-11 drills. Bucs MLB Shelton Quarles forced the fumble near the sideline toward the end of the play.

At the beginning of both of Thursday's practices, Tampa Bay wide receivers coach Richard Mann dedicated about 10 minutes to running his players through press coverage drills. These drills are designed to help the wide receivers put a swing move on the cornerback/defender and then work their way up the field. It's obviously very important for Gruden's receivers to be able to get off of press coverage, which is something some of Tampa Bay's receivers have had trouble doing in the past.

Tampa Bay WR Keenan McCardell made his debut on Thursday. The first thing that stood out about McCardell is that he's a lot faster than advertised. That's not to say he's a burner like receivers Frank Murphy or Aaron Lockett, because he's not, but he is quick. McCardell runs crisp routes and is sure-handed. He displayed good field awareness by hauling in a pass on the sideline and managing to keep his feet in bounds in Keyshawn Johnson-like fashion. He ran with the first-team offense opposite WR Keyshawn Johnson. Considering McCardell just signed with the Bucs less than a week ago, he seemed to be well aware of what was going on out on the field.

One thing the Bucs had McCardell doing on offense was clearing out coverage for WR Keyshawn Johnson and the tight ends. During 11-on-11 drills, McCardell did an excellent job of clearing out coverage by quickly cutting underneath the coverage and across the field. The pass was completed to WR Keyshawn Johnson for what would have been a touchdown, and McCardell celebrated, knowing he had cleared out the coverage and made the play possible. It was refreshing to see McCardell take pride in running a route that he knew would not result in him catching the football. Without mentioning any names, Tampa Bay lacked this sort of unselfishness at the receiver position last year.

Speaking of Keyshawn Johnson, the Buccaneers have had an impressive attendance at voluntary workouts throughout the offseason, but Johnson has not been a regular frequenter at One Buc Place. Johnson lives out in Los Angeles, which is why he has not been participating in many of the voluntary workouts. But this is nothing new for Johnson. He didn't participate much in the voluntary workouts when former Bucs offensive coordinators Les Steckel and Clyde Christensen implemented their offenses. The team knows Johnson will perform during mini-camp, training camp and on game day and his absence has given receivers like Murphy, Green, Milton Wynn and rookie Marquise Walker more playing time.

"We like what we saw from Keyshawn (Johnson) today," said Gruden. "It was nice to have him back in town. He's missed a number of these days for personal reasons. Frank Murphy has had a consistent camp. Joe Jurevicius might be the MVP for the offense over the last two weeks. Guys are getting better and taking advantage of their opportunities."

Tampa Bay has a surplus of possession-type receivers on its roster, but don't think they are lacking speed. Wide receivers Frank Murphy and E.G. Green are the speedsters on offense for the Bucs. Watching Murphy and Green go in motion toward the quarterback reminds me of what Arena Football teams do with their receivers. For those of you who are not familiar with Arena Football, the offenses line its receivers up 10-15 yards behind the line of scrimmage and have them get a running start toward the line before the ball is eventually snapped. It's almost unfair to give guys this fast a head start, but it should certainly work to Tampa Bay's advantage this season.

Bucs tight ends Ken Dilger and Marco Battaglia will present legitimate threats in terms of the passing game this season, but one thing Gruden feels is being overlooked is their ability to run-block. Gruden's offense will feature a lot of two-tight end formations, which he hopes will allow Tampa Bay to return to a run-first type of offense.

"They (the tight ends) are not just for Brad Johnson," said Gruden. "We want to run the ball. I think we were (30th) in the league running the ball last year. We've added some bulk to the backfield with (Michael Pittman). We lost a good player in Warrick Dunn. If you have a tight end that can block the point of attack, it allows you to run the ball off tackle to the strongside. Ken Dilger has done that for the Colts and we think Marco Battaglia can that, too."

Tampa Bay's offense continued to shift players on the line of scrimmage on Thursday. One of the first things that stood out in Gruden's offense in April was the amount of shifts at the line. At one point during Tampa Bay's morning practice, the offense was shifting as many as five players at one time. The shifting consisted of tight ends moving off of the line and into a split-formation in the backfield, running backs lining up as receivers, tight ends lining up as receivers and receivers motioning. This will present plenty of confusion for opposing defenses, but don't be surprised if the Bucs receive a few more illegal motion penalties this year than they have in the past.

Gruden also demonstrated some trickery during Thursday's second practice by having King take a snap from center and hand the ball off to WR Karl Williams on a reverse. The play went for a 15-yard gain.

Tampa Bay's defense was near full-strength for the first time this offseason. The Bucs welcomed back DT Warren Sapp, OLB Derrick Brooks and MLB Nate Webster. All three players spent most of the offseason recovering from offseason surgery.

Bucs CB Brian Kelly, who suffered a broken hand at the team's first mini-camp, was also back in action on Thursday.

Bucs DE Marcus Jones has recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, but he didn't participate in Thursday's practices.

Brooks and LB Al Singleton rotated at the strong and weakside linebacker positions during five-on-five drills. Shelton Quarles occupied the middle linebacker position. Quarles has added 5-10 pounds of body weight since moving over the middle linebacker position.

Cornerback Corey Chamblin split time with CB Dwight Smith on second-team defense during Thursday morning's practice, but toward the end of the practice, Smith was in on most of the snaps. Smith had to leave the Thursday afternoon practice due to cramping, but before he left, Smith made a couple of nice pass breakups during 11-on-11 drills. On one play, Smith batted the ball out of WR Karl Williams' hands, but the ball flew over Smith's shoulder and landed into William's body and hands while he was on the ground.

Bucs safety David Gibson has been in on a lot of plays and is seeing more playing time with the second-team defense, but he appears to be pressing in terms of trying to make plays. He's been very aggressive throughout the offseason and he looks like he's feeling pressure with rookie S Markese Fitzgerald and S John Howell competing with him.

On special teams, Bucs punter Tom Tupa might have been the highlight of Thursday morning's practice. Tupa consistently punted the ball 50-60 yards in the air. He put excellent hangtime on his punts, too. Bucs P Dave Leaverton punted a few times, but he was actually practicing kickoffs while K Martin Gramatica was sidelined with a groin injury. Tupa is clearly the front-runner for Tampa Bay's punting job.

Mike Solwold and Mike Malczyk handled Tampa Bay's long snapping duties on Thursday. The Bucs still are currently working with rookie TE Tracey Wistrom in hopes he will be able to compete at that position.

Tampa Bay had several players fielding punts on Thursday morning. WR Frank Murphy, CB Dwight Smith, RB Aaron Stecker, WR Karl Williams, RB Bryron Hanspard, WR Aaron Lockett, RB Travis Stephens and CB Tim Wansley are all competing for that job.

Despite the almost unbearable temperatures on Thursday, both of Tampa Bay's practices were spirited and solid overall. Thursday's temperatures are just a preview for what the team will encounter in Orlando during training camp, which starts in just 47 days.


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