Bucs' Joel Hale making most of late call to chase NFL dream
UPDATE: Literally within minutes of this story being posted, the Bucs announced they'd waived Joel Hale to get to the NFL roster cutdown limit of 75 players. His hope of sticking on an NFL roster has ended, but here's his story, nonetheless.
Joel Hale never played a snap of offensive line in a college game, so the former Ohio State defensive tackle had a big transition to make, trying to stick with the Bucs in preseason as an undrafted rookie playing offensive guard.
When Tampa Bay called him five weeks ago, he was lined up somewhere else entirely: on the sales floor at Ray Skillman Southside Buick GMC back in Indianapolis.
"I was at home, selling cars," Hale said. "I did pretty well, just trying to make some money, but I couldn't turn down the opportunity. I'm glad I came down here."
The rookies on the Bucs' offensive line run the gamut from draft picks to free agents who earned modest signing bonuses in May to Hale, who has brought a long shot's drive and determination, given a chance as the last player signed before training camp began. He's not just hungry, Bucs offensive line coach George Warhop said.
"Oh, he's starving," said Warhop, who saw Hale at the Bucs' rookie minicamp in May as a tryout player who wasn't initially signed. "He has really good initial quickness and he takes the offensive coaching. You see those things, it lends itself to saying the kid has a chance. He works his tail off. I like him. We'll see how it plays out, but he's going to do his part, I know that."
Hale played defensive tackle plenty at Ohio State -- he started nine games for the undefeated Buckeyes in 2012, and tried offensive line during a redshirt year in 2014, but returned to defense last season, getting 12 tackles as a senior.
"I knew I was a solid defensive tackle, a gap-eater, a space-eater, this, that and other," Hale said. "But I knew if I wanted any chance at making a career out of football, not just a short stint, it was going to be on the offensive side of the ball."
Hale trained as an offensive lineman this spring, tried to think about the game as an offensive lineman, but flipping the field mentally was only part of the process as he tried to learn on the fly in his first week of training camp.
"At this level, there's a lot more thinking involved," Hale said. "I thought a lot of it would carry over, but this is definitely the next level, I'll tell you that."
Hale's initial goal was simply to prove himself enough to coaches that they'd let him in the second half of preseason game, knowing that actual playing time would help him learn the position much better than any practice reps. Sure enough, he played 13 snaps in the preseason opener at the Eagles, then 21 against the Jaguars and 19 in Friday's first preseason home game against the Browns.
He's no longer the new guy on the offensive line -- another lineman signed and left the squad, and two more have been signed for depth since he arrived. When the Bucs made their initial cuts from 90 to 75 players this weekend, another rookie was cut instead of Hale. And with starters likely getting the night off Wednesday, he's battling for a preseason start, and significant playing time as he competes for a spot on the Bucs' practice squad.
"It's been an unbelievable experience, something I'll never forget," Hale said Monday. "I'm still constantly learning, every single day. A lot of information to take in, but I have to keep improving. That's my main thing. I have to keep making strides."
The Bucs tried to convert a defensive tackle to offensive guard last year in Matt Masifilo, who made the 53-man roster as a backup for the first month of the season. Hale is another ambitious conversion, and while he's unlikely to make the final cut this weekend, he won't necessarily be done with the Bucs or the NFL, an example of the outside-the-box signings that general manager Jason Licht likes to go after.
"He's an athletic guy, and he's really smart and really tough," Licht said. "He has all those traits, so it's worth a shot. Sometimes, you hit on some of those guys."