TAMPA — When Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins injured a shoulder in Week 2 against the Saints, the player who is best filling the void left by his extended absence was in street clothes on the other sideline.
Harvard graduate Cameron Brate spent much of his rookie year on the Bucs' practice squad last season, catching a single pass for 17 yards. This year he again missed Tampa Bay's final cuts out of training camp, and a week later, he was released from the practice squad and signed to the same role by New Orleans.
When Seferian-Jenkins was sidelined, the Bucs quickly re-signed Brate to their active roster, and the 24-year-old has emerged in the past four games, totaling seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
"We always saw him as one of our guys," coach Lovie Smith said this week. "We were able to bring him back, and when you have injuries, with Austin going down, other guys get an opportunity, and he's made the most of it."
Brate's first touchdown was a 20-yard grab from rookie Jameis Winston in the Bucs' win at Atlanta. His touchdown Sunday was a quick 4-yard strike in a lopsided win at the Eagles. Its circumstances — a tight end as primary target in the red zone, with a throw into a tight window — were encouraging for Brate and the rest of the team's tight ends.
"I didn't run the best route, to be honest, but an awesome pass by Jameis," Brate said. "It was great that he had the confidence in me to make a play for him."
Brate has been sure-handed, catching nine passes on 11 balls targeted for him. The only player with more than three catches and a higher percentage caught is running back Doug Martin, who has 21 catches on 24 passes.
"Just getting balls thrown our way is really big for us, so when we get balls thrown our way, we hope to catch it, hold on and make some plays," Brate said.
Despite missing eight games, Seferian-Jenkins leads the team's tight ends with 139 receiving yards, with Brate close behind with 131. The group is still on course to improve on last year's totals for tight ends and eager for a bigger piece of the offensive pie.
"I don't want to talk about last year too much, but last year, tight ends were definitely kind of the forgotten guys on the team," Brate said. "This year we know we're live whenever Jameis drops back to pass. It's definitely exciting for our group."
Brate's Ivy League background sets him apart from most of his teammates. He finished his last exam for his economics degree last summer in the lobby of a Minnesota hotel while trying out at Vikings rookie minicamp. With the Bucs, he nervously asked Smith for permission to miss a day of practice to return to Harvard for graduation ceremonies.
Brate, who caught 18 touchdown passes at Harvard, is working to become a better blocker. With Seferian-Jenkins likely to miss a ninth straight game Sunday against the Colts, Brate has developed into the best pass-catching threat among the remaining tight ends.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was in a special-teams meeting when a coach told Brate to "think like a linebacker" — not something many Ivy League grads hear often — but the advice has helped make Brate a more physical player, one who is finding his way into the end zone.
"Cam is a guy we almost let slip away there," Koetter said. "(Jon) Embree, our tight ends coach, has done a fantastic job with him. We really saw the potential in Cam. He's improving every week, which is all you can ask from any player."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.