"I don't know how this got started," Gruden stated. "Brad starts every period for us. When we go to our red zone period we usually start at the 20-yard line. I wanted Brad to get some of the intermediate throws today from the 12 to 15-yard range. Brad is the starting quarterback. I don't speak Spanish or Russian or all these other languages but, if I did, I would let the whole world know that he's our starting quarterback."
As far as quarterbacks go, I feel that Brad Johnson is and should be the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart. He's familiar with the offense being that he operated in a similar offensive scheme under Norv Turner in Washington and flourished there. The one fault I see in No. 14 is that he does come off the primary receiver a little early especially on longer patterns that require a seven-step drop for the quarterback.
Rob Johnson is more athletic than his counterpart and that's what intrigued the Bucs, especially Gruden, when they signed him in the off-season. At 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds he has the size to see over the rush of the defensive line and the athleticism to escape to blitz. The two flaws I find in is game is that he holds on to the ball too long. In fact, in the final 7-on-7 period, Gruden screamed at No. 11 to run instead of sitting in the pocket for a long time. The other negative, and this is one I'm going to have to do further research during training camp, is that he seems to throw a heavy ball. With the other two quarterbacks, there is very little sound when the receivers catch the football. With Rob Johnson, though, there is a lot of noise when receivers catch his throws. The velocity of the former University of Southern California Trojan passes could also cause this but I think that isn't the case. He had numerous throws dropped today even by sure-handed wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson who was a former teammate at USC.
Shaun King seems to be picking up the offense a little slower than the other two but that's expected. He's on his fourth offensive system in as many seasons and he seems to be doing more thinking than reacting to his reads. He threw the only interception at practice today and was off-target on a few other throws. In fact, after practice today, Gruden met with King before he left the practice field. He was, probably, trying to fire up the former Tulane University alumni after a bad practice and, maybe, telling him to trust what he sees so he can make plays.
The wide receivers had a good day catching the football but head and shoulders above everybody else was Keenan McCardell. The 6-foot-1 former Jacksonville Jaguar had an impressive day making numerous catches. He finished practice off with a 20-yard skinny post between two defenders in the red zone period. Gruden felt that No. 87 maybe getting overworked so his repetitions may be cut back so he doesn't burn out.
"He's had a very good camp for us," Gruden said. "He's worked so hard that we've talked about him getting some quality reps. He's taken so many turns that you can get a little quick and a little short in the cuts that we're looking for. He was sharp today. He was big time sharp today. We really think our receivers are some pretty talented guys."
The situation at running back is starting to crystallize into a Tale of Two Mikes. Mike Alstott and Michael Pittman has become the tandem that has emerged as the starters. Both are multi-talented and showed it today. No. 40 showed his prowess in the short yardage and red zone periods scoring on two short touchdown runs from the five-yard line. No. 32 made numerous runs inside as well as off the edge but was more impressive as a pass receiver. The former Fresno State University product caught a go route from Rob Johnson for a big gain as well as several stop and check down grabs. Gruden likes the versatility the Two Mikes bring to his offense.
"We should have the ability to do both in our running and passing game," Gruden explained. "Alstott and Pittman give us that ability and Travis Stephens has been impressive in camp.
The most consistent group since mini-camp has been the tight ends and that has continued into training camp. With two huge targets in Ken Dilger, at 6-foot-5, and Marco Battaglia, at 6-foot-3, Bucs quarterbacks have gone to the tight ends in passing situations and today was no exception. Both No. 85 and No. 83 made nice catches in traffic. The big battle of training camp is for the third team tight end spot between Todd Yoder and Mike Roberg along with rookie Tracey Wistrom. Yoder will cost the most from a salary cap point of view and Wistrom could be placed on the practice squad so Roberg is the logical choice if the coaches believe all three players are of equal ability. Gruden realizes that the tight end position is a very important cog in his offensive machine.
"You throw in our two tight ends and we have a pretty good offense," Gruden expressed. "If one more emerges it will give us the personnel flexibility to attack opponents in some different ways."
The position that takes the longest to develop cohesion as a unit is the offensive line. Under the expert tutelage of offensive line coach/offensive coordinator this group is starting to come together. Muir believes in fundamentals and his old-school approach, especially drive blocking on the sled, is a welcome change from the former regime. The Bucs are also toying with the idea of only dressing seven offensive linemen on game day. That means Todd Washington will most likely back up at center as well as both guards and Roman Oben would be the swing tackle. Expect to see both of these players at numerous spots from tackle to tackle and today was no exception. Gruden was happy with the way the hogs knocked people off the ball.
"I was very pleased with the offensive line in the 9-on-7 period today," Gruden stressed. "I was also very pleased with the way the offensive line came off the ball in the short yardage period as well. They were very physical today."
The deepest group on the team is, hands down, the defensive line. A healthy Warren Sapp, Anthony McFarland, Marcus Jones and Simeon Rice could be the best front four in the NFL. Today that group played the run extremely well and harassed the quarterback in passing situations consistently. Again, Greg Spires is making great strides to push for playing time at defensive end. Gruden likes the talent of his defensive line from top to bottom.
"Our defensive line is very talented and explosive," Gruden responded. "That's a very deep group of guys over there. On the line it's very competitive and I like their physical play."
The linebackers had a decent day of practice. To the untrained observer it would seem that the linebackers were beaten on numerous occasions in passing situations but you must remember the basic premise of this group is to run to the football and make the tackle immediately. For the most part they accomplished this goal and did a credible job in stepping up to fill on running plays. The one newcomer that stood out against the run was Joe Todd. Another rookie that also has made an impression on Gruden has been Ryan Nece.
"These guys are around the ball a lot," Gruden stressed. "We are trying our best to throw a lot at them from an offensive standpoint. They are communicating well and I'm very impressed with their starting group. Nate Webster is having a good camp also. Ryan Nece has caught my eye too. The young linebacker out of UCLA has made a lot of athletic plays and he's showed up in pads to make some physical plays too. He has to keep executing our defense and making plays. He also has to flourish on special teams. Right now he's been at the forefront of a lot of people. He's caught our eye athletically and he's caught our eye explosively on the football field. We are hoping for more of that from Ryan Nece."
The defensive backs are still being tested by the Gulf Sore offense of Gruden. The one player that continues to be in the right place at the right time is cornerback Dwight Smith. No. 26 had the only turnover of the day when he snares a Shaun King pass intended for Keenan McCardell that was tipped by strong safety John Lynch. The offense had a three big pass plays against the secondary and that is a trio too many for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Speaking of Kiffin, he has become more animated and vocal under Gruden. He's the same perpetual ball of energy but he's become more vociferous and that's more to my liking. Now there is immediate feedback to the defense instead of waiting until the film session later in the day.
The surprise of practice was British kicker Rob Hart. His two kickoffs landed at the two-yard line and two yards deep in the end zone. No threat to incumbent kicker Martin Gramatica but it did raise some eyebrows among coaches and media members