Graham ready to go if Caddy can't

Earnest Graham is used to logging time as a special teams player. But this weekend that might change if Carnell Williams can't play. Graham may have to start at running back, in addition to his special teams duties. It would likely be the most extensive playing time of his NFL career.

Jon Gruden calls him "Mr. August." But Gruden may have to call his number much more often than usual this weekend.

Earnest Graham fought like heck to get on this roster starting in 2003, when the Bucs signed him as an undrafted free agent. Since then he's become one of their most valued special teams performers.

But he may have to log more that just special teams this Sunday against New Orleans.

Graham might have to start at running back. And it's that fight running backs coach Art Valero wants to see if Graham is the guy on Sunday.

"Each year he has to work his butt off to make this team, whether it be on special teams or as a backup running back," Valero said. "Unfortunately there's only been one ball, so he hasn't had that opportunity to play on offense.

"We put Earnest Graham in the game, I don't think there's anyone in this organization that doesn't have complete confidence and faith in him that he's going to make something happen."

The condition of Carnell Williams and his bruised ribs may keep the third-year pro out of Sunday's game. If so, the Bucs will have just three running backs — Graham, Michael Pittman and fullback B.J. Askew.

So, even if Graham doesn't start, he'll play plenty between splitting reps with Pittman and special teams.

Bring it on, Graham said.

"It's not a big deal to me, you know?" Graham said. "It's just football. I love to play football wherever I can fit. I've been making plays since I was six or seven years old so if I have to step up and be a running back that's what I'll do. I've done it for a long time."

Graham has always been a running back, but never consistently at the pro level — except of course, in preseason, where he's led the Bucs in rushing each of the past three years.

"He certainly shows his capabilities as a running back in the preseason — that's why he's still here," Valero said. "All he does is go forward. He has a great knack and a great natural feel to find holes, to cut. He has a rare ability with vision. So he has a lot of tools and ability."

But in the regular season Graham had totaled 52 carries for 215 yards and no touchdowns entering this season. Last week Graham had four carries for 11 yards and caught one pass for nine yards, which he later fumbled.

How long had it been since Graham carried the ball that many times in a game? That would be five against Cleveland last Dec. 24. His career high is seven, which came against the New York Jets on Oct. 9, 2005.

Graham's greater value has always been on special teams. He is part of the return and coverage units for both kickoffs and punts. Last week, when David Boston came up with a foot injury in pre-game warm-ups, the coaching staff moved Graham to kickoff returner so Michael Pittman could work exclusively at fullback.

Graham turned in a solid performance — four returns for an average of 22.5 yards.

"I do everything I can, man," Graham said. "I returned a couple of kicks last week, I played some halfback, played on other special teams, you know? Whatever I can do to help us is what I'm going to do. That's what I've been doing since I've been here."

Gruden has enough trust in Graham, it appears, to move the back to a different position at a moment's notice. Graham is usually Pittman's personal protector on kickoffs.

"Well, we think he is a good returner, he is a good north-south runner," Gruden said. I thought for the most part he caught the ball, made good decisions, and got positive yardage. Earnest was the best we had to go back there with."

He fills all of these roles because he needs to in order to remain employed. But can Graham be an effective player logging 10-15 carries a game, as he might Sunday if Williams can't play? Valero learned long ago not to underestimate the 5-foot-9, 225-pound back. He's also worked with special teams coach Richard Bisaccia to formulate a play for Graham to do both, if needed.

"If he's going to carry the ball 15 times, or he's going to touch the ball 20 times in a game, there are going to have to be some concessions made, either in our part on offense or on special teams," Valero said. "You don't want to run the guy into the ground."

It may not matter. Graham believes Williams will be ready to go. Williams participated fully in practice on Thursday.

But if Williams isn't ready, Graham faces the prospect of starting his first football game since his senior year at Florida.

If so, he understands the mandate — pick up where Williams left off.

"I want to be ready so I don't lose a step," Graham said. "Cadillac is a great back, one of the better backs in the league. If I come in I want to make sure there's no drop off."

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.

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