MIAMI — Dan Buenning joined the Bucs as a fourth-round pick in 2005 and immediately joined the starting lineup at left guard.
But since then, it has been a winding road for the former Wisconsin Badger, with a knee injury cutting short his 2006 season and his languishing on the fringe of the roster in 2007.
Saturday in Miami, Buenning made his long-awaited return to the lineup, playing extensively at center and showing the impressive toughness that made him a stout run blocker as a rookie.
The Bucs always had high hopes for Buenning, especially after 2005 when he was one of only four rookie linemen to start all 16 games that year. The thinking was he would be part of the future as the Bucs began rebuilding their line. But his injury on Thanksgiving Day in 2006 left his future in doubt.
By the time Buenning recovered, the Bucs had spent a second consecutive first-day draft pick on a guard (Arron Sears), and first-rounder Davin Joseph was coming off a superb rookie season.
That left Buenning on the outside looking in, with the Bucs leaving him inactive for all 16 games last season.
Perhaps that's why he showed so much aggression toward the Dolphins, entering the game on the third offensive series and playing well into the second half. He stood up well despite having a nose tackle lined up directly in front of him in the Dolphins' scheme. Jeff Faine's $37-million contract ensures he will be the starting center for some time to come, but Buenning's ability to bounce back could prove valuable to the Bucs given his versatility.
In the mix is rookie Jeremy Zuttah, who figures to get more extensive playing time as the preseason progresses. He and Buenning are in direct competition.
DYNAMIC DUO? The Bucs used Micheal Spurlock and rookie Dexter Jackson on kickoff returns, giving the Bucs two potential game breakers in their effort to improve field position. The move didn't yield spectacular results — the longest return of the night was Jackson's 21-yard runback.
They also split punt-return duties, with Spurlock taking the first couple of turns.
But it's expected that Jackson will supplant him as the preseason progresses — or at least that's the plan, according to coaches.
Rookie free agent Clifton Smith also got a look as a punt returner. On his first attempt, he slipped a couple of tacklers and scurried 30 yards to the Dolphins 43.
INJURIES, ETC: Injured veterans Jeff Garcia (calf), B.J. Askew (foot), Jovan Haye (groin) and Joey Galloway (groin) did not make the trip, remaining in Tampa for rehabilitation.
Their absences required a few lineup changes beyond the one at quarterback, where Luke McCown started. Ryan Sims started for Haye at defensive tackle, and Maurice Stovall started at split end for Galloway.
The Bucs opened the game without a fullback, where Askew was missing. They instead chose to use a two-back set of Warrick Dunn and Earnest Graham. That could potentially be a combination they use in the regular season.
HOMETOWN KID: Tampa's Brian Clark scored the Bucs' first touchdown on a 3-yard pass from Brian Griese. Locals might recall Clark starring at Chamberlain High, where he helped lead the Chiefs to the 5A state championship game as a senior.