TAMPA — It was barely 7:15 a.m. Thursday when Gerald McCoy walked up to One Buc Place, reporting for training camp in a red robe and slippers like a kid on Christmas morning.
Many players had already arrived before sunrise, and if it seemed as if the defensive tackle and his teammates couldn't wait for their first camp under coach Lovie Smith, well, they weren't the only ones.
"I know I'm not jumping up with pompoms right now, but believe me, I've seen this day for a long time," Smith said. "There's a lot of us excited about getting out there on the football field."
The team's first practice won't come until this afternoon — fans can watch for free from 4:30 to 7 p.m. — and players won't be in full pads for a few days with the regular-season opener still more than six weeks away. But with nearly seven months of buildup since Smith's hiring sparked a busy offseason of change, the start of camp brought a welcome end to so much prologue.
"Just getting better, growing as a team, training camp is extremely fun," said McCoy, who is excited for more sleep after his wife gave birth to twin boys last week. "I don't care what coach you have, what team you're on. Training camp is not easy. But when you can come together with your brothers, you see your brother out there grinding, it makes you want to play that much harder for him on Sundays."
So much has changed since the 2013 season ended with a 4-12 record: new coach, new general manager, new uniforms and 40-plus new players that combine for optimism about the Bucs' potential to become relevant in the NFL again.
Smith has stayed away from quantifying what would constitute success. He presented two initial goals Thursday: win all eight home games and win the NFC South — although he admits he doesn't know how many wins that will take.
"What's your motto? What's your slogan? It's just daily improvement. Let's not put a ceiling (on it)," Smith said. "Let's see how good we can become; how soon we can become a really good football team."
The preseason opener is two weeks away (at Jacksonville on Aug. 8), which will introduce fans to the Bucs' six draft picks, all on offense. First-rounder Mike Evans, the Texas A&M receiver, and second-rounder Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Washington tight end, were limited by injuries in the spring but should have no limitations as camp starts.
"This is my dream," Evans said. "It's everybody's dream to play in the NFL. Well, most people's. I'm just happy to be in (this) position, and I want to make the most of it."
Smith has downplayed any insights to be gleaned from minicamps and offseason workouts, reminding that football without pads is only so telling. The players hit the field today with full-contact drills soon after, and a new coach is thrilled about the chance to learn more about his players.
"You're anxious to see exactly what we have. There were so many things we liked from what we did in the offseason work," Smith said. "Now to see the team come together as players start working out, pretty soon you're in front of a bigger audience. There's definitely a sense of urgency, which you like. We want a competitive camp. Let the guys tell us exactly where they belong.
"You have to go through the daily grind. I think most real football players love that."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.