TAMPA — The Bucs' two leading internal candidates to fill the void left by injured defensive end Adrian Clayborn agree on one thing:
It's an impossible task.
"You can't replace that kind of guy," Daniel Te'o-Nesheim said.
"A.C. brought a style to this defensive line that nobody can bring," George Johnson said. "Nobody can really match his intensity."
But with Clayborn heading for season-ending knee surgery, both Johnson and Te'o-Nesheim are embracing the potential opportunity to step up. It's a tall task, as the two have combined for two NFL starts. And while defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and end Michael Bennett boast most of the line's sack production, Clayborn — their first-round pick 2011 — was their engine.
"Adrian was always our energy," McCoy said. "He was always a high-motor guy, all over the field making splash plays. You always need that on a defense, so we're going to miss that. But somebody has to step up and fill that void. You hate to lose your No. 1 guy, but we've still got 13 more (games) to play."
Coach Greg Schiano said they are considering all options, including looking outside or making schematic changes (using three down linemen or moving Bennett from left end to right). For now, the Bucs elevated Te'o-Nesheim to starting right end, but he'll likely continue to compete with Johnson.
"George has done well, he's been inactive the last two weeks, but that's more of a numbers thing," Schiano said. "Daniel has done well when we played him."
Schiano coached Johnson, 24, at Rutgers. Johnson signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010, spent most of last season on the practice squad, and played in the opener.
"He's always had confidence in me," Johnson said of Schiano. "Every day he talks to me, says, 'I have the utmost confidence in you.' Now it's time to put that confidence to the test and me be confident doing what I'm doing, and him being confident in me going out there and playing."
Te'o-Nesheim, 25, Philadelphia's third-round pick in 2010, was plucked from its practice squad in November, and played the first three games. He entered in the fourth quarter Sunday when Clayborn got hurt. Te'o-Nesheim isn't the biggest guy (6 feet 3, 263 pounds), but plays with great effort.
"Getting to play is everybody's goal," he said. "I just hope to make the best of it."
McCoy pointed out the Bucs have dealt with injuries on the defensive front before; after all, he missed 13 of his first 32 games. Tampa Bay has been without defensive end Da'Quan Bowers since he suffered a torn Achilles in May, though he's eligible to come off the physically-unable-to-perform list after Week 6.
The absence of Bowers, the team's second-round pick in 2011, has been filled by Bennett, who has emerged as a force since he was claimed off of waivers from Seattle in 2009. Bennett has three sacks and two forced fumbles in three games this season after racking up four sacks in 2011. Though the Bucs could move Bennett from left to right end, he "really wants" to stay where he is.
"I'd rather stick to what I do," Bennett said. "Whatever they want to do, I'm more comfortable playing my same position I always play. But if they want me to go there, I'll go there."
Bennett is confident either Johnson or Te'o-Nesheim can get it done.
"Daniel is a very impressive player — he just needed the opportunity," Bennett said. "Every time he gets the opportunity, he makes a couple plays. That's what we need. George is a guy who really works hard, wants to get his chance. I believe he'll capitalize on his opportunity."
Shipley out, Parrish in
The Bucs will have their third punt returner in as many weeks Sunday when it's expected new signee Roscoe Parrish will field punts.
Parrish, a former second-round pick of the Bills out of the University of Miami, signed Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Bucs released receiver Jordan Shipley, who fumbled a punt return in his first game with Tampa Bay on Sunday in Dallas.
Parrish's career 12-yard average on punt returns since 2005 ranks second in that span behind Bears receiver Devin Hester (12.8). Parrish's average is the seventh-best in NFL history for players with 75 returns or more.
Punt returns have been an issue since preseason, when receiver Preston Parker was relieved of those duties because of multiple fumbles. His replacement, receiver Sammie Stroughter, went on injured reserve last week with a foot injury. That led to Shipley's brief stint.
The Bucs have an available roster spot after placing Clayborn on injured reserve on Monday.
Times staff writer Stephen Holder contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]