Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs' rookies: Beware of hitting the rookie wall

TAMPA — Rookie receiver Adam Humphries says his body clock is synchronized with the Clemson Tigers. His former team is ranked No. 1 in the college playoff poll and preparing for the ACC Championship Game. After that, they will have several weeks off before resuming practice for the playoffs or a bowl game.

But for Humphries and the Bucs, there are still five games to play — and more, they hope — in the comparatively more grueling and considerably longer NFL season.

"I've been keeping up with Clemson all year long, and mentally, I guess I'm kind of in the college mode," Humphries said. "But you've just got to understand there's five (NFL) games left in this regular season and maybe postseason after that. So you've just got to stay in the moment."

Perhaps no team relies as heavily on rookies at key positions as the Bucs, who are led by first-year quarterback Jameis Winston. He is protected by first-year offensive linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. The defense is directed by rookie middle linebacker Kwon Alexander. Then there are key role players such as Humphries and receiver Dontaae Dye.

Eleven games into the season, a large core of Bucs players are rookies who could be sputtering down the stretch and leaking oil like the Deepwater Horizon spill.

It's known as the rookie wall, which — either real or imagined — is something all first-year players have to knock down, scale or tunnel under in order to finish the season strong.

"I think there's something to that," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "The first time through (offseason workouts), training camp, preseason games — which, oh, by the way, they still hit hard. Now here we are, 11 games. What we talk to our guys about is, 'Hey, you've got five weeks left. … Think of that in the big picture of football, let alone life. I mean, five weeks is nothing. Don't worry about five weeks right now; worry about one week."

A year ago, receiver Mike Evans had 890 yards receiving through his first 11 games as a rookie, an average of 81 yards per game. In the season's final month, that total dipped to 161 yards, a 40.25 average.

"It's much different this year," Evans said. "For me especially, my body is not hurt as bad because I know what to expect.

"Last year it was harder because we were losing (finishing 2-14), much more than we are this year (5-6). It was tough (last year). You want the season to be over. You don't have a chance to make the playoffs. You just want the season to be over, but you have to keep fighting every game. It was hard to wake up in the morning and come in."

The average college season lasts 11 or 12 games. If you include the preseason, NFL players have to endure 20 weeks of games.

Bucs defensive tackle Akeem Spence, who played all 16 games as a rookie in 2013, said the challenge is more physical than mental.

"By the time I got to November, I was ready to put the football helmet down and pick something else up," Spence said. "I think it's more of the physical, because you know what to expect mentally, you know how to prepare for a game and do the work."

Winston said the Bucs' training staff has done a good job of keeping his body refreshed and believes the adrenaline from a playoff push should sustain him.

"I can't speak for the other rookies, but I believe we've done a good job of keeping our bodies rested and keeping our minds mentally from being exhausted," Winston said. "I'm excited. This is the time football matters."

Perhaps the only person at One Buc Place who refuses to acknowledge even the concept of a rookie wall is coach Lovie Smith, who hasn't detected any signs of fatigue from first-year players.

"I'm just not among the group of people that think that's an issue," Smith said. "I mean, Jameis Winston? 'Hey, Jameis, are you getting tired?' Nah, I don't think that's coming up with him. 'Kwon (Alexander), are you getting tired?' Nah, I don't think so.

"I'm going to say that about all of our guys. Ali Marpet? No. Can't wait to get back in there. So I just don't put a whole lot into that.

Then again, a rookie wall may exist, Smith said. "But where we are with our football team, where we're counting on so many of our young players, if it is, they'd better keep it to themselves."

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