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Bucs must sort out running back surplus

If there's one offensive position the Bucs aren't concerned about, it's running back.

Consider:

• Starting quarterback Jeff Garcia remains disgruntled about his contract and exposes himself to injury too much for the team's liking.

• The offensive line is going through growing pains, though it should continue to improve with the addition of center Jeff Faine.

• At receiver, the Bucs haven't found anyone capable of unseating graybeard Joey Galloway as the No. 1 option.

Ah, but what a relief to have a backfield chock-full of talent.

Warrick Dunn, Earnest Graham and Michael Bennett make a formidable lineup. (For simplicity's sake, we won't consider the possible return of Cadillac Williams — yet.) Still, even with several attractive options, the Bucs have some decisions to make.

Last we checked, they use just one football on Sundays.

It's only June, so no one is bellyaching about playing time. But it will be interesting to see how the Bucs handle what could be a delicate situation among three capable backs. So far, coaches aren't letting on how they'll do it.

What has been established is the Bucs have three types of runners:

• Dunn is shifty with an uncanny ability to change directions quickly.

• Graham isn't fast, quick or particularly athletic but possesses a toughness neither of the others can boast.

• Bennett is flat-out fast, having once pursued a career as a world-class sprinter.

Dunn is the kind of running back coach Jon Gruden loves, so don't be surprised if you see a whole lot of the 33-year-old former first-round pick. Gruden sees the same thing in Dunn he admires in Williams: big-play potential. And Dunn is a better receiver than Williams.

Graham's monthslong contract dispute probably won't prevent him from reporting to camp, so he'll be there looking for a steady dose of carries.

"I'm very anxious for what I think we can do as a team," he said. "Personally, I'd like to be there and get significant playing time — whether it's starting or not — at the beginning of the year."

Gruden stressed to Bennett that he needed to grow more comfortable with the offense after his midseason trade last year.

In three of Bennett's eight games with Tampa Bay, he didn't touch the ball. After an offseason of extensive work, he believes he has positioned himself to make an impact.

"I think this is my chance to really get involved in a great offense," he said. "I'm still fast. I think I can beat that Smart car in first gear. I'm very comfortable. Coach is yelling at me every (few) plays instead of every other play. I'm definitely feeling good about the playbook. Last year I really kind of felt left out."

It's easy to say the Bucs should go with running back by committee, but not everyone would agree. Running backs will tell you they're at their best when they're in a rhythm during games.

Gruden likely will make it simple and go with whoever has the hot hand.

Whatever happens, Gruden will have to make some tough decisions. Sure, it's a good problem to have.

Lucky for us, all we have to do is sit back and watch it play out in what is sure to be one of the most intriguing story lines of training camp.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Bucs must sort out running back surplus 06/28/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:39pm]
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