TAMPA — To prepare for the physical rigors of training camp, tight end Luke Stocker worked hard before the Bucs reported for the start of the 2013 season.
Maybe too hard.
He sustained a calf injury in training, then compounded the injury by trying to complete coach Greg Schiano's intense conditioning test.
So, instead of gearing up for the most important training camp of his career, Stocker, entering his third season, has been nursing another injury.
"This is absolutely my shot," said Stocker, No. 1 on the preseason depth chart. "They're handing it to me and saying, 'It's yours, you have to take it and run with it.' That's why this injury has been so frustrating."
But it's hard for Stocker to run with the opportunity when he has mostly been standing in place. Free agent Tom Crabtree has taken advantage of the increased snaps in Stocker's absence, as have Nate Byham and Zach Miller. The position has become one of the team's most competitive, and now Stocker isn't an active participant.
"It is an interesting group," Stocker said. "You don't really have anyone that's really seasoned and had a lot of success under their belt as an individual. … Everyone's trying to get to that point where they break through in their career, so you see a lot of guys who are just battling out there and I'm really excited to get back out there and battle with them."
When will that happen?
That depends on Stocker's timeline. Trainers are taking things slowly with him, though he has been activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list and is practicing on a limited basis.
In the meantime, Schiano was blunt about Stocker's predicament.
"This injury doesn't help," Schiano said. "You look up now and you're into the preseason schedule. You miss that grind and that chunk of time that he really needed. I don't know what that's going to do to his progress. We're going to have to see. Certainly, it's not the optimum way to go about it."
Meanwhile, Crabtree is making quite the impression. "I like Tom,'' Schiano said. "He practices hard. He's a smart football player. He enjoys playing the game. He plays well on special teams. Busts his hump. He's been a real good addition to our team."
Injuries have been a constant factor for Stocker. In his rookie season, after being drafted in the fourth round in 2011, Stocker missed the preseason with a hip injury. When he returned, he never did seem at full strength and struggled to overcome the lack of training camp foundation.
Just as much of an obstacle has been the veterans above him on the depth chart. In his rookie season, that was Kellen Winslow. Last season, it was Dallas Clark.
So, even when he returns to full strength, Stocker is going to have to prove some things.
With 28 receptions in two seasons, he can't be considered accomplished despite his flashes of talent. With the Bucs opting not to sign a big-name tight end in the offseason after Clark's departure, Stocker has a real chance to fill the void.
He can be quite the reliable blocker — at times. And he shows some intriguing athleticism — at times. But the Bucs need to see more, and Stocker knows it.
"I think I've shown promise," he said. "I've shown them that I can do things. It's a matter of consistently doing good things and the things that they need me to do. That's this league. You show promise, you stick around. But the thing is, if you want to be a great player, you have to do it and you have to do it consistently."
And, as is the case with Stocker, you also must stay on the field.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow him on Twitter at @HolderStephen.
By the numbers
Bucs tight end Luke Stocker has had limited opportunities in his two seasons since being taken in the fourth round in the 2011 draft. A look at his statistics:
Year Rec. Yds. TD
2011 12 92 0
2012 16 195 1