That's A Wrap

June 15 - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished their final mini-camp practice under the direction of Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on Saturday. To say that it was different from the former regime would be an understatement. Some things are no longer tolerated and if you are a player with thin skin or injury prone, your stay with the Pewter Pirates will be a short one. Get the inside scoop and an overview of Tampa Bay's last mini-camp in this detailed report.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers completed their first collection of mini-camps under the tutelage of head coach Jon Gruden on June 15. Practices were spirited and sometimes, if one can remember back to the hit by safety John Howell on tight end Ken Dilger, almost too spirited. The only starter to go down with an injury was cornerback Brian Kelly, who broke his hand on a freak play during the first mini-camp session in April. Other than that, the Bucs came out of the voluntary off-season sessions without any major injuries to their front line players. That is one thing to be thankful for especially after word came out of Philadelphia that Eagles running back Correll Buckhalter went down with a knee injury just running a pass route on air that will force him to miss the entire 2002 season.

Head coach Jon Gruden did have some specific goals in mind for the Bucs to accomplish at mini-camp. From what he saw he thinks those goals were achieved.

"We just wanted to put an exclamation point on what has been three months of hard work," Gruden stated. "We really tried to emphasize details, structure of plays, communication and the effort. We did do that but we still have some error in our play on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game that we need to continue to work on improving."

Offensively, it was back to the classroom as the Buccaneers started to learn their fourth offensive system in four years. In layman's terms that could be compared to learning English the first year French the second year, Japanese the third year and Swahili the fourth year. If you're not a master at linguistics you are going to struggle and that's what the Bucs did at times on offense especially at the quarterback position. It seems that Rob Johnson has done a better job of grasping the offense than Shawn King and, for that reason, has been moved up to second team on the depth chart. No. 11 does look a lot better than the battered and beleaguered quarterback he was when the Bucs knocked him into submission two years ago at Raymond James Stadium. From a starting standpoint it's still Brad Johnson's job to lose and he's done a credible job up to this point.

This group probably benefited the most from the OTA's (Organized Team Activities) because they were able to take what they learned in the classroom to the football field. Gruden felt that these were essential to improving the football team not only to the players but also to the coaches.

"It's a big thing that sometimes gets overlooked," Gruden stressed. "Everyone knows that the players have to learn the system but we also had to implement a new system with some coaches who have never worked together and, really never met before they came here. It gave us a chance to practice coaching and communicating together as a staff as well as to our players and with our players."

The group that gets the least out of the mini-camps are the offensive lineman. This is a group that needs to work in pads but with new offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Bill Muir running the show, the practice time did not go to waste. You could see the improvement from the April mini-camp to now of the younger players, especially Cosey Coleman and Kenyatta Walker, with their technique and footwork.

The running backs are a conglomeration of all sizes and speeds with each having a different talent. The Bucs can go from an inside power running group, with Alstott and Pittman, to a perimeter attack with the insertion of Stephens and Stecker. The player with the most to prove, and who is playing like this is his last chance at the NFL brass ring, is Byron Hanspard. He is going the back that is always giving the extra effort in drills and finishing off his runs or receptions in team. This couldn't have gone unnoticed by the coaching staff and will bode well for him when training camp begins in August.

The tight ends had the best day of all when in came to making big catches. Ken Dilger and Marco Battaglia made big catches in one-on-one drills against the defensive backs but Todd Yoder and rookie Tracey Wistrom both have highlight film catches. Yoder had a leaping grab in the back of the end zone and Wistrom made a finger tip catch on a crossing pattern.

The wide receivers have received the most notoriety with the off-season pickups of Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell. The one knock against this group is that they are all possession receivers and they lack deep speed. This could be the most overrated part of the passing game. In the Gulf Shore offense, almost every pass pattern has a deep element and a crossing route in it. With bigger receivers, they will be able to get separation from the smaller defensive backs and catch the short-to-intermediate passes. This will create first downs as well as control the football and that's the basic philosophy of the offensive scheme. With the wide outs, bigger is better, and they are showing that so far.

Defensively, it was a retooling session for Pewter Pirates. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was working to tweak a few concepts here and there to try and improve the sixth ranked defense in the National Football League. Having his defensive coaching return intact for the 2002 season is a huge plus and the Bucs return 10 players who started on this unit for the final playoff game in Philadelphia.

The Bucs had ten of their top 11 line up for the final mini-camp practice. The only starter not on the field was defensive end Marcus Jones who is still rehabbing his shoulder. He was replaced by Greg Spires, a 6-foot-1 and 265 pound five-year veteran from Florida State University, who defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli have raved about since the first mini-camp in April. Though ge not as tall or as big as the 6-foot-6 and 278-pound Jones, Spires is very athletic with excellent speed and great quickness.

The other three starters on the defensive line -- end Simeon Rice along with bookend tackles Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland -- are holdovers from last season. Rice is starting to develop into a force on the right side and the constant coaching by Marinelli of the minutest fundamentals of defensive line play as well as his willingness to accept this coaching has helped No. 97 improve daily especially against the run. McFarland continues to get better at nose tackle and a svelte Sapp seems to be rejuvenated by the coaching change. No. 99 also is motivated by the fact that he had an off-year, by his standards, in 2001 in the sack department and his play so far has shown that he wants to prove to everyone that last season was an aberration and not the norm.

The linebackers looked as athletic as ever. Derrick Brooks looks like the player of old and seems to be playing with a purpose. He is the leader of the group and the entire linebacking corps take their cur from him. He is showing no ill effects from the foot ailment that troubled him throughout most of the 2001 season and that's good news for Bucs fans.

The group that has had the most trouble at mini-camp are the defensive backs and rightfully so. Having gone from playing daily against a vanilla offense in the past to the constant motion and movement that they're seeing now, Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin's brigade have never seen these kinds of pass routes on a daily basis. It is a huge change from the past and the group as a whole has struggled at times but there has been some bright spots. The biggest glow has come from cornerback Dwight Smith who is expected to be the nickel back in the Bucs coverage schemes this season.

It was hard to get a handle on the kicking game because of the injury to Bucs K Martin Gramatica The Bucs ignored that phase of the game. The punt game is another story. Tom Tupa and David Leaverton are in a tight battle that will be determined at training camp. Tupa has the edge now because of his ability to fill in as an emergency quarterback if needed.

What we have seen is a true competition between the offense and the defense during mini-camp. Players are not holding back and Gruden likes the idea of going offense versus defense, but has problems, sometimes, picking the winner.

"I'm not going to get into who has won that battle," Gruden said. "The defense has long withstood the test around here and the offense is trying to, in my opinion, improve their demeanor and pick up their status as a balanced football team that can move the ball throwing or running. They need to be a team that can convert third downs and win the battle of time of possession. You know the defense is tremendous here and the offense is improving but you would have to ask the players who won. I know the offense would say they won and the defense would say that they won but everybody is working together and that's the big thing."

It's six weeks to training camp and the Bucs, from their head coach down to the last player on the depth chart, are chopping at the bit to put on the pads and get down to business. This is a team with a purpose and has a head coach that won't allow them to become complacent. Let the games begin.

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All photos are courtesy of Pewter Report director of photography Cliff Welch unless noted otherwise.

Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/

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