TAMPA — Running back Earnest Graham has great vision, but what has kept him in the league is his ability to see where the holes on his team developed.
If the Bucs needed a special teams player, he covered kicks. When they were short at fullback, the 5-foot-9 former Florida star packed on a few pounds and sacrificed statistics.
As the ink on his left forearm reads: Struggle builds character.
But Graham has never been fully appreciated for what he does best — make plays running and catching the football.
That will change again this season. Graham will be the third-down tailback and the backup to starter LeGarrette Blount.
"I haven't done that for a while, but just to know the organization still looks at me as being able to carry the ball and be productive," said Graham, 31. "That says a lot. And I know it's been a minute, but they know I'm capable. They see me day in and day out. I think they know I can get it done."
Graham takes over the role vacated by Cadillac Williams, who signed with the Rams as a free agent.
When Williams suffered the first of two devastating knee injuries in 2007, Graham got his first real chance to carry the ball in the NFL. He responded by rushing 222 times for 898 yards with 10 touchdowns.
In 2008, Graham was splitting carries at tailback with Warrick Dunn and off to a fast start when injuries at fullback prompted Graham to volunteer to help out at that position.
The battering ram assignment took a toll. He finished the past two seasons on injured reserve, playing in 13 games in 2009 and 12 games in 2010.
That's why Graham has openly rooted for converted defensive end Erik Lorig, 6 feet 4, 260 pounds, to start at fullback.
"I just think Lorig is plenty capable," Graham said. "The guy is a big athlete, he can really run and is really physical. So I really think that's his position, and I'm doing everything I can to help him step up in that position.
"It was nothing to do with me wanting to play halfback, because wouldn't mind running the ball and doing some things at the halfback position. But he's just capable and really the guy we need to play that fullback position because he has all the tools. It's just getting him up to speed as far as the season is concerned. My prediction is that he'll be starting at fullback."
Coach Raheem Morris all but confirmed Monday that Graham has won the third-down job over Kregg Lumpkin, though Graham might be used at fullback at times.
"Earnest, right now, if we were lining up to play, I'd like to say he's the clear-cut leader," Morris said of the third down spot. "But I don't want to say that completely because of what Lumpkin is going to have an opportunity to do this week. So we'll see. And also the big guy in that has been Lorig, how much he could do for you at fullback and first down."
In Saturday's preseason win over the Dolphins, Graham proved his worth as a third-down back in the final two minutes of the first half. He was perfect in protection of quarterback Josh Freeman, gained 15 yards on a screen pass and scored the tying touchdown two plays later on a 2-yard run.
Blount rushed for 1,007 yards last season, but he did not start until the 10th game. He won't be as fresh late in the season this year, and Graham is ready to help out where he can.
"For me and LeGarrette and Lumpkin, it's going to be a large responsibility on our shoulders to really carry the team through the season," Graham said.
"It's a new year. We were hot last year; teams have been watching us all offseason. LeGarrette's role as a running back is very, very important, and a lot of teams are going to be shooting for him, so I'm here to take some of that pressure off him and help him get through that so he understands what he'll experience running the whole season."