TAMPA — The rookie talent show is always a training camp ritual to provide comic relief. But a bad performance on the field can be no laughing matter.
Just ask Bucs running back Jeremy McNichols. His missed blocking assignment in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's 13-9 preseason loss to the Browns forced coach Dirk Koetter to pull him off the field after only two snaps.
McNichols, a fifth-round draft pick from Boise State, entered the game with 5:14 remaining. He took a hand off from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on the first play and was dropped for a loss of 1 yard.
On the next play, McNichols blew his blocking assignment in pass protection. Rather than account for defensive back Calvin Pryor III, who was unblocked and standing up to his left on the line of scrimmage, he looked inside to help in pass protection. Pryor sacked Fitzpatrick for a 9-yard loss. But a defensive holding penalty on the Browns during the play gave the Bucs a first down.
You may recall McNichols was told to get into his playbook in the first episode of Hard Knocks and received coaching tips on FaceTime from Snoop Dogg.
"He's doing fine on special teams," Koetter said Sunday. "He's just making too many mistakes on offense, and he had a protection error that led to a sack, so I took him out at that point. That was my decision. He's going to play a lot on Thursday night (in the preseason finale against the Redskins), and he's going to get one final chance to show what he can do."
Two plays after McNichols left the game, running back Russell Hansbrough ripped a 27-yard run, the longest of the night.
The Bucs could keep as many as four running backs on their 53-man roster, especially with Doug Martin suspended for the first three regular-season games for violating the league's police on performance-enhancing drugs. But depending on position battles at other spots such as tight and receiver, they could opt to go only with Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims and Peyton Barber.
Twice on Hard Knocks, McNichols has been featured getting help on his assignments. As Koetter said, his final chance may come Thursday night.
What can the Bucs expect from their rookie class this season?
Tight end O.J. Howard (Round 1/19 overall)
Howard is going to be a big help in the running game and passing game. His blocking improves each week, and Saturday he caught two passes for 15 yards. Look to see a lot of two-tight-end formations with Howard and Cameron Brate.
Safety Justin Evans (Round 2/50)
Evans missed most of the offseason with an undisclosed injury and won't win a starting job. But he will make an immediate impact on special teams. He downed a punt at the 1-yard line Saturday and had one tackle. But he also was too aggressive in pass coverage and was penalized twice for hits to defenseless receivers on the Browns' winning drive.
"He's trying to play hard and play fast. It's just unfortunate," Koetter said of the penalties. "He wasn't trying to do it. They were aggressive penalties, no excuse. Helmet to helmet, defenseless player. The first one definitely was, the second one … the ref said and we had to live with it."
Receiver Chris Godwin (Round 3/84)
With Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson sitting out against the Browns, Godwin had to play the No. 1 receiver role and led the Bucs with four catches for 56 yards with a long of 19. Godwin does not play like or carry himself as a rookie, and he will see a lot of playing time even as the No. 4 receiver.
"He played like a (No. 1 receiver Saturday), and he did a nice job," Koetter said. "He had a couple of explosives. He blocked well. That's the thing about Chris, he's versatile. He can do lot of different things. I think he still could build his stamina so he's playing hard for the 64 plays. We probably won't ask him to play 64 plays if we're healthy."
Linebacker Kendell Beckwith (Round 3/47)
Beckwith got the start Saturday at strong side linebacker and missed a few tackles, including one on Browns running back Duke Johnson that resulted in a 37-yard gain in the second quarter. But he also forced a fumble by Johnson on the same drive, and it was recovered by Adarius Glanton.
"He missed a couple tackles," Koetter said. "He didn't bring his feet with him. But he's going to help us. He's going to give us depth at linebacker and be good long term."
Defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (Round 7/223)
Stevie T, as he is known to teammates, is in a battle with Sealver Siliga for a backup spot. He played 22 snaps Saturday and did not record a tackle. Siliga played 15 snaps and had one. They are essentially the same body type and player, but Siliga is listed as the backup to starter Chris Baker.
In the first three drafts under general manager Jason Licht, there were five draft picks who never played a regular-season snap for the Bucs. A player like McNichols has to do something Thursday not to add to that number.