TAMPA — Who knew a big key to the Bucs backfield would be a former defensive end drafted in the seventh round?
But that's the scenario as FB Erik Lorig tries to make the case that he can start, thereby freeing up Earnest Graham to help at tailback.
The Bucs realize Graham is not a natural fullback, but he has performed the fullback duties since last season out of necessity. Lorig, who missed the preseason opener with an Achilles' strain, is hoping to do something about it.
"(The coaches) have mentioned me being a bigger part of the puzzle," Lorig said. "I've totally embraced that since the beginning. … I love that kind of pressure. When you have that kind of pressure it means you're doing something right."
Offensive coordinator Greg Olson said his staff has been unable to assess Lorig's ability to take the job over because of the injury, but he is back this week and should play extensively Thursday against New England.
"He's going to get to play this week and he'll play a lot," Olson said. "So we'll see where he is. There's no reason he shouldn't be able to do it. There's a big difference between being out here (at practice) and the game. But he showed some glimpses last year."
Graham remains a very capable runner, gaining 13 yards in his only carry Friday against the Chiefs. The Bucs want to use him as a third-down option and for depth if Lorig progresses. Lorig gained 15 pounds of muscle, according to Olson, and should be a bit better in his execution this season.
"We feel like with another year of having a chance to absorb the system, he'll play with a little more instinct," Olson said. "He wasn't very instinctive last year and part of it was because he really wasn't sure all the time who he was supposed to block. Sometimes he was a little unnatural. He knew who to block, but if there was any kind of in-play adjustment, those things were kind of new to him."
Lorig played tight end as a freshman and sophomore at Stanford before a move to defense. After abruptly switching back last year, he's growing more comfortable.
"I feel like my offensive capacity is much greater now," he said. "I'm much more confident. … It's been a smooth transition."
THE NEW GUY: The Bucs were recently awarded undrafted rookie TE Collin Franklin off waivers from the Jets, and could make things interesting.
According to Olson, Franklin — in his first practice on Tuesday — stepped in nicely and was effective. Franklin, 6 feet 6 and 256 pounds, made several nice catches despite being new to the offense.
The team hopes he'll push Ryan Purvis, rookie Daniel Hardy and Nathan Overbay. That group is essentially battling for the No. 3 tight end spot behind Kellen Winslow and rookie Luke Stocker.
BREAK OUT: Camp breaks today after three weeks of intense work, curfews and being cooped up in the team hotel.
Asked whether he felt his players handled their sudden return to football after NFL lockout better than expected, coach Raheem Morris said, "I've got some high-character, quality young men, so I wasn't expecting them to come back out of shape and all that stuff.
"I'm really fired up where we are. We've still got a lot of room to get better but I look forward to us getting better."
QUOTABLE: Morris on whether the Patriots present a bigger challenge than the Chiefs, who played few of their starters Friday against Tampa Bay:
"It's kind of hard to say the Patriots wouldn't be a better measuring stick. It's the Patriots, (coach) Bill Belichick and it's a great football team that plays hard and plays fast. You hate to say it doesn't matter who plays for them, but it really doesn't. They've got the Patriot Way."