Penn eager to take on challenge

Donald Penn has waited for his chance for two years. Now, on Sunday, he'll start at left tackle for the injured Luke Petitgout. His reward? Taking on one of the NFL's best ends in Dwight Freeney. Penn is eager to show he's up to the task.

Tampa Bay's Donald Penn finds inspiration in Tiki Barber.

Not the former Giants' athletic prowess, but his Cadillac commercials.

"I always watch that Tiki Barber commercial, where he's talking about his opportunity," Penn said. "Every time I see that commercial I think, ‘Man, I'm just waiting on mine. I'm going to get it one of these days and I've just got to do it, because you only get one.'"

Penn, a second-year tackle, will say hello to opportunity on Sunday when he makes his first NFL start at left tackle against the Indianapolis Colts.

The task? Penn must assimilate a starter's game plan, overcome pregame nerves and protect quarterback Jeff Garcia's blind side from All-Pro rusher Dwight Freeney in the place of starter Luke Petitgout, who is now out for the season with a knee injury.

"He's not being thrown into the fire," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said Wednesday. "He's being thrown into a blazing inferno."

Penn knows what is at stake.

"It's a big matchup," Penn said. "He's a great player. I've been thinking about that ever since the game (against Carolina) ended. It's my first game, he's a great player. I'm going to see where I'm at. It's going to be a big test for me."

How did Penn get in this situation? The hard way. He signed with Minnesota as an undrafted free agent last year. The Vikings then released him before the regular season, signed him to the practice squad and spent a month in Minnesota before Tampa Bay signed him to the active roster on Oct. 4 of last year.

From there, it's been about hard work and trying to get noticed by offensive line coach Bill Muir and Gruden.

"I've been working hard here ever since to get to where I'm at right now," Penn said. "(I) just have to keep working now."

Penn came into training camp lightly regarded. Most observers expected Anthony Davis to back up Petitgout.

But the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Penn took advantage of Petitgout's absence from training camp due to a back issue. During those 10 days, Penn found an opportunity to get noticed.

"Donald Penn took a lot of the reps over there and allowed us to function," Gruden said of Penn's time in place of Petitgout in training camp. "The more we watched him the more we said, ‘You know what? This guy's pretty good.' He's been under the microscope for Bill Muir and (line assistant) Aaron Kromer. They're hard on him. I think he respects that."

By the end of the third preseason game — when Penn came in for an injured Jeremy Trueblood at right tackle after the game's first possession — it became clear that Penn had a job.

Now Penn is manning the offensive line's most important position. The left tackle is the back-side protector for the quarterback. Penn didn't have to do much of that last week, as the Buccaneers kept the ball on the ground to maintain their lead over Carolina. In that regard, Penn played well, maintaining his side of the line and helping the Bucs to a total of 189 yards rushing.

But Penn is untested in the regular season in pass protection. Garcia said he just has to have faith that Penn can get the job done on Sunday. Garcia came away impressed with Penn's performance against Carolina, at least as a run blocker.

"As far as his blocking technique, his attitude, his intensity, it was all there," Garcia said.

The quarterback also said that the Bucs have it in their game plan to give Penn some help on the left side, likely in the form of a blocking back or a tight end set up next to Penn. But there will be times, Garcia said, that Penn will have to handle Freeney himself.

"Someone saw something in him that they liked and gave him the opportunity to be here," Garcia said. "Now he has to prove to everyone that he belongs."

Muir isn't taking it easy on Penn, either. He put the rookie through a 10-minute sled workout after practice on Wednesday.

Why? Muir, just like everyone else, knows the "blazing inferno" that awaits Penn in Indianapolis.

But can Penn put it all together in time to maintain the level of play that Garcia became accustomed to from Petitgout the first four weeks of the season?

No one will know until Sunday.

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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