TAMPA — If it feels like it has been a long time since you've seen Earnest Graham as the Bucs' primary ball carrier, it's because, well, it has been.
When this subject is broached with Graham, the quiet veteran leader, he doesn't wait until the question is complete before blurting out, "2008."
Yes, Graham knows exactly how long he has been awaiting this shot. This time, it comes at the expense of LeGarrette Blount, who has a knee injury and is expected to miss the Bucs' game Sunday against the Saints. Last time, it came in place of an injured Cadillac Williams, who didn't return until midseason.
Regardless of how it came about, Graham is ready to make this opportunity count, as he finally returns to the role of starting tailback.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it because my team is counting on me, and they have a lot of confidence in me," Graham said. "Over the years, they've always rooted for me to carry the ball quite a bit, but I didn't get put in that situation. I'm definitely excited to step up for my team and provide something."
Graham isn't one to make outlandish or controversial statements. He's measured and reserved. But it's clear he wished he'd had more opportunities to carry the ball in recent seasons.
"You look at him in practice this week and he looks fresh," guard Davin Joseph said. "He's a little upbeat knowing he's going to get to carry the rock."
Graham has spent much of his time at fullback the past two seasons, out of necessity, a willing participant all the way.
But he has never forgotten his roots. He always has considered himself a running back first, going back to his school days at Mariner High in Cape Coral, where he earned the title of Florida's Mr. Football in Class 6A in 1997. He certainly was every bit a running back at the University of Florida, where he scored 33 touchdowns and rushed for 3,065 yards.
Graham, undrafted out of UF in 2003, has provided reminders of his rushing ability since then.
He averaged more than 14 carries per game in the complete games he played in 2008 (he had one carry in a game in which he suffered a season-ending injury). He maximized those carries, averaging 4.3 yards per rush and recording three 100-yard games. In 2007, when he also spent most of the season as the lead ball carrier, Graham had 10 rushing touchdowns, third-most in franchise history.
But so much time has passed. And Graham, now 31, is in his eighth season. He has never been considered fast, and he doesn't blind you with quickness.
He will likely share carries with Kregg Lumpkin on Sunday, but do the Bucs have doubts he still can carry the load?
"If we felt that way, we wouldn't put him in there," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. " … We have all the confidence in the world in Earnest, and we always have in the time that I've been here."
That said, Graham is no Blount, a 250-pound specimen known for his violent running style.
"There's no one way to replace what LeGarrette Blount's able to do," coach Raheem Morris said. "We don't have anybody (that is) physically like that."
But the Bucs argue the 5-foot-9, 225-pound Graham is a chameleon, able to adapt his game to the team's preferred style of attack, which at the moment leans toward the power game.
"I really don't think we're going to change our game plan," left tackle Donald Penn said. "We're going to play Buc football."
Graham says he can do that. The Bucs' ability to keep possession of the ball and keep the Saints' offensive juggernaut on the sideline depends on it.
"I've never had a problem running the football," Graham said. "It's never been a challenge for me. I can go in and be effective and any time I've ever started a football game, I've always been effective. There's no doubt in my mind that I can get it done."