TAMPA — Gabe Carimi has tattoos of two hammers on his back, fitting for the "Jewish Hammer" nickname the 6-foot-7, 316-pound Bucs right tackle earned while playing for Wisconsin.
There, Carimi was an All-American, winning the Outland Trophy as college football's best interior lineman in 2010 before being a first-round pick of the Bears (29th overall) in 2011.
"He was a very, very physical, dominating player," said Bucs offensive line coach Bob Bostad, who coached Carimi at Wisconsin. "They don't call you 'Hammer' because you're not physical. His senior year … we decimated Michigan, decimated Ohio State, decimated Iowa. We didn't just beat them, we beat them up. And he was a big part of that."
Bucs coach Greg Schiano said Bostad's "insider information" on Carimi was the biggest reason they acquired the third-year pro from Chicago in June for a sixth-round pick. Schiano acknowledged that "if you just read the media stuff," you'd wonder why, because Carimi was limited his first two seasons by a right knee dislocation suffered in his second NFL game. But Carimi, 25, said there are no longer any physical issues and he's excited for the fresh start in Tampa Bay, where he's competing with incumbent Demar Dotson at right tackle.
"I think I've just gotten back to where I was, where I can have success again," Carimi said. "It was a bad knee injury. But I'm feeling a lot better now."
Carimi has a tough task. Dotson signed a $7.5 million, four-year deal in March, started 15 games last year, and has looked great in training camp. Dotson is still amazed how he has overcome the odds, going from a Southern Miss basketball player with just one year of college football experience to an NFL starter in four years. His goal is to be the best right tackle in the league, and Schiano says if Dotson continues his steady improvement, he could be a "special player."
But Dotson, signed as an undrafted free agent, said Carimi will push him: "With Gabe behind you, it does make you work a little bit harder because here's a guy who was a first-round draft pick. Enough said."
Dotson, 27, has 17 starts, just one more than Carimi, but has played in twice as many NFL games. Carimi missed almost all his rookie season as his right knee required surgery and a long recovery. "It was definitely difficult," he said. "Having an injury three times just wears on your body. But I'm feeling good now."
Carimi still has to get acclimated to the Bucs scheme and get into a rhythm with his technique. That's why, though Schiano believes Carimi is versatile enough to play both right tackle and inside, they haven't started cross-training him at guard yet.
But left tackle Donald Penn, a former Pro Bowl player, has been impressed with how technically sound Carimi is, considering it took him a couple of years to get his down.
"I think we're getting a big, tough, smart football player," Bostad said. "I know he'll come in and compete. I know he'll come in and work every day. He'll pick up our scheme relatively fast, and I think he'll be versatile, giving us something we didn't have last year as far as that goes at that position. I think he's going to push everybody here and be a viable candidate."
Carimi said his experience with Bostad has aided his transition and added he will play wherever the Bucs want him.
"Wherever the cards play at the end, I think we've got some great linemen here," Carimi said. "I'm just excited to be on a team that's good."
Carimi said he feels Judaism has helped improve his life, while also sparking a new nickname in Chicago: "The Bear Jew," a reference to the hulking, bat-swinging character in the movie Inglourious Basterds. But now that Carimi is with the Bucs, the Bear reference won't apply.
Quipped Carimi: "We'll go back to the Jew Hammer."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.