TAMPA — DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward are two 280-pound peas in a pod.
The rookie defensive ends have been thrust into the NFL together in the past three weeks, scouting gems acquired as undrafted free agents for a combined $5,000 in signing bonuses.
They grew up in small towns in the South and played in the SEC, and not only did they make the Bucs' cut, but they've played a ton due to injuries all over the defensive line, combining for five tackles in Sunday's loss to the Broncos.
"They've done a solid job," defensive line coach Jay Hayes said. "I told them, 'Hell, you played in the SEC. The next step is playing in the NFL.' When they came for rookie minicamp, for sure, I had my eye on them. Well, here we go."
The two shared adjoining lockers in training camp, were inactive together in the season opener, with coaches hoping to groom them early without them dressing for games. Then a slew of injuries came, and Lambert, 22, made his debut in Week 2 and Ward, 24, a week later. Lambert has played 100 snaps total in the past two games with four tackles, and Ward has played 42 with three tackles.
Lambert is from Keysville, Ga., (pop. 332) and played at Auburn, overcoming a torn ACL late in his junior year. Ward, of Aberdeen, Miss., (pop. 5,612) and played four years at Ole Miss, with only four career starts on a loaded defense.
"We're as proud of him as we can be," said Eric Parker, Lambert's coach at Burke County High, where he won a state title in 2011, always known as "Pee Wee" to teammates. "He was a great leader for us. We had quite a few kids on that championship team that played college football, but he by far was the best prospect. You see kids in school wearing his jersey now."
Lambert didn't qualify academically out of high school and had to go to Georgia Military College. Going there meant having to lose the dreadlocks he had in high school, but Parker remembers the day he showed up, head shaved, ready to do what it took to continue his playing career.
Ward played on the varsity as an eighth-grader — they called him "Channing Bob" because his father's name was Bob — and stayed home at Ole Miss, finishing with 110 tackles and 61/2 career sacks and making good on promise his coaches had seen.
"I sat him down and told him if he does what he's supposed to, he'll make a living playing football," said Chris Duncan, his high school coach at Aberdeen. "He always had a good head on his shoulders. Just an unselfish kid, wanted to win. As a coach at any level, you love to see that."
At Auburn, Lambert tore his ACL late in his junior year, and while he returned last season as a senior, his limitations played a role in him not being drafted.
"He's a wonderful person, very talented, a great worker," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "He came on and got better and better, and then he hurt his knee. I don't know if he was ever 100 percent after that, but he was so tough, he just hung in there. It doesn't surprise me at all — if he's healthy, he's an outstanding player."
Lambert got his shot first as an injury replacement, and that inspired Ward, who benefited when another end was sidelined by injury.
"To see someone you came in with getting snaps, you knew your time was coming," Ward said. "Watching him, it really hit me. Things are about to change. Folks are getting hurt left and right. Your time is coming."
Lambert signed with the Bucs without any bonus, recognizing a good opportunity to make the team, something he has prepared for since back in rookie minicamp.
"First day, they talked about everyone being ready for any situation, next man up, so you have to be prepared," Lambert said. "I've been learning a lot, but I have to keep pushing, keep fighting."
Both have the quickness to play at defensive end and the strength to slide inside as a tackle on third downs, a flexibility Hayes covets. Their quiet, yes-sir demeanor has helped them win coaches over too.
"It's better to be seen and not heard," Hayes said. "Be heard with how you play on the field, and that's what they do. One of the reasons they're quality guys is the way they carry themselves."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.