TAMPA — No Buccaneer knows Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles as well as defensive tackle Roy Miller.
Miller was his roommate for three years at the University of Texas, and he remembers Charles' quick wit and quick feet, routinely making up jokes and dances.
"He was a clown," Miller said, smiling.
But Miller could also tell back then what the rest of the NFL knows now: Charles, 25, boasts special speed and big-play ability that make him one of the game's most dangerous backs. And that makes Charles, the league's leading rusher (551 yards), the Bucs' primary concern in Sunday's home game with the Chiefs.
"You watch him on film, and he's one tackle away from hitting his head on the goalpost," Miller said. "He has so much speed and agility that he makes a guy miss and all of a sudden, he's taking the ball all the way on the other side of the field."
Charles, a fifth-year back, is a big part of the Chiefs' game plan, as the run-dominated offense ranks third in the league in rushing attempts this season. Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said the Chiefs are "consistently the best rushing team" because of their efficiency and willingness to run in any situation, behind a strong offensive line.
And Charles, as shown in his franchise-long, 91-yard touchdown run against the Saints, can break the big one at any time. His career average of 6.0 yards per carry, if he had the minimum of 750 carries (he has 602), would be the highest in league history, better than Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Jim Brown.
"If he can stay healthy, he'll break a lot of records," said ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, Charles' former coach with the Chiefs. "You're always nervous about him making the big play. That's where he's different than the other guys."
Edwards knew Charles was explosive when Kansas City drafted him in the third round in 2008. The former high school and college track star ran 40 yards in 4.38 seconds. But Edwards said Charles dealt with immaturity issues that hindered him from having an impact as a rookie.
The turning point came in Week 2 of Charles' second season, when then-coach Todd Haley made him inactive for the home opener against the Raiders. It was a wake-up call for Charles, sparking an improved work ethic, and he rushed for 1,120 yards that year.
A bulk of those yards came in the final four games, when Charles took over for injured starter Larry Johnson and never looked back, including a 259-yard performance in the season finale that is a franchise record.
Charles made his first Pro Bowl the following season, in 2010, when his 1,467 rushing yards were second to only Houston's Arian Foster. He lost most of last year due to a torn ACL in his left knee suffered in Week 2. But he made a remarkable recovery.
"I'm not the strongest person on the field. I don't break tackles or anything," Charles told Sports Illustrated. "I just run with a purpose and run with a passion, I guess. It just feels good to get the ball and run."
Charles isn't a big back, at 5 feet 11, 199 pounds, but he has shouldered a heavy load, racking up 30 or more carries twice this season, including 31 times for 140 yards against the Ravens last week. He also made plays in the passing game, with 14 catches for 118 yards (8.4 yards per catch).
"He's a very competitive young man," Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. "He does have tremendous talent, he's got great vision, got great speed, and he wants the ball in his hand. He's giving us a chance. And so when it's going good, we keep feeding him."
The Bucs expect a heavy dose of Charles, and though their rush defense is much-improved (fourth in the league at 75.5 yards per game), Sheridan acknowledges it'll be a big challenge.
"He's an extraordinary football player," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "He's got that something special."