TAMPA — As Friday's morning practice started, Bucs coach Lovie Smith stood alone near midfield with center Evan Smith, who was dressed in full gear and is working his way back from an ankle injury that has sidelined him the past three games.
After the two talked, the center walked back inside One Buc Place, and when three quarterbacks took snaps with centers moments later, Evan Smith wasn't among them. Joe Hawley, who has stepped in as the starter, worked with starting quarterback Jameis Winston because he likely will in Sunday's game at Washington.
"We're always careful with guys (recovering)," the coach said after practice. "Joe Hawley's play is encouraging. I always tell the guys, if you deserve to play, some kind of way, you'll get it. … Joe Hawley has stepped up. We feel very comfortable with him playing."
Evan Smith returned to practice this week but has been listed as limited, saying the injury has taken longer to heal than he had expected.
"This first week out there is like a test drive for me, to see how it feels," he said. "It's been progressing pretty well. It was a gradual (process) coming into the week. The plan was just to get out here and see if I can move. If it is (better), it is; if not, it's next week."
Hawley, signed days before Smith's injury as a veteran backup, has filled in well as part of an offensive line that showed progress in the first five games despite injuries at three of the five spots. The team rushed 40 times for 183 yards — both highs in Smith's tenure as coach — in beating the Jaguars in their last game.
At the same time, Hawley has politely yielded to Smith's position as a starter before his injury, saying he understands the role he signed on for.
"I got here late as a backup. I know it's Evan's job," Hawley said. "We're looking forward to getting him healthy, getting guys back healthy. Depth is a big key."
The issue of whether a player can lose a starting job due to injury has drawn different responses from Bucs coaches. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter had said Smith would return as the starter once healthy, but the head coach wasn't as firm, saying there will be competition.
"It wasn't that long ago that everyone in here (media) except me was scared to death about our O-line, and now we're worried that we have too many (players)," Koetter said this week. "Let's not worry about having too many guys. … When the day comes when we have (Smith and Hawley) both available, both healthy, both 100 percent, then Coach will have to make that call."
The Bucs have to decide whether making a switch when both are healthy would hurt the line's chemistry. Both centers have experience as starters. For now, Smith is focused on getting healthy, knowing that's the first step toward a return.
"When (the injury) first happened, I was like, 'I'll be good. I'll be back in a week or two,' " Smith said. "It didn't get all big and black and blue and all crazy. … It didn't show the signs of 'Your ankle is jacked up.' But it's been moving better this week than I thought."
Offensive line — one of the team's key positions of concern entering the season because of two rookie starters — has improved in run blocking and pass protection. Lovie Smith said he will pick starters based on who puts his team in the best position to win.
"To me, you lose your job if you're not the best available guy. It's as simple as that," he said. "It doesn't matter how it happens. There's no set formula that you go by as far as how I've done it. If you have two healthy guys, you make a decision, as a coach, on who gives you the best chance to win. What has happened in the past comes into play a little bit, but not an awful lot. So that's what we'll do."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.