Saturday, June 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jace Daniels battles for spot with Bucs

TAMPA — Adversity, and to a lesser extent football adversity, is nothing new for Jace Daniels.

"Jace hasn't had a lot of fresh bread in his life. He's overcome a lot," said Dan Flynn, his coach at Escanaba High on the shores of Lake Michigan and a high school coach on the state's Upper Peninsula since 1971.

The offensive lineman didn't have the grades to play major-college football. He proudly played in Division II at Northern Michigan and started 42 games — a crowd of 2,543 saw his last one — but wasn't drafted out of college a year ago.

He signed with the Bucs and was among the team's final preseason cuts last fall. Signed to the practice squad, he was cut again two days later.

But the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Daniels was signed back to the practice squad four weeks later and spent the rest of last season there. This year, after getting a look with the first-team offensive line in practice, he's competing not only for a roster slot but also a spot in the starting lineup.

"To fulfill that childhood dream, it's amazing to see," said his older brother Nick Anderson, who preceded Daniels as a tackle at Escanaba and Northern Michigan. "He's been all heart, all determination his whole life. He deserves it all."

Daniels, 25, grew up without his father in his life. His mother, Sheila Anderson, died from diabetes and cancer in November of his senior year of high school.

"That made me grow up that much more quickly," Daniels said after Tuesday's practice. "That's the biggest thing you can go through, especially at that age. If I can get through that and keep going, I can get through anything. I play this game for her. I miss her every day."

He went to live with Nick, now 35, who had played Arena Football for the Iowa Barnstormers after college and remembers his brother always at his games — as a ballboy at Escanaba, carrying the cord for the assistant coaches' headsets in college, running out to get the tee after kickoffs. Daniels said Nick has been his inspiration in football and beyond.

"He's been my No. 1 role model. I've copycatted him, wanted to do everything exactly like he does," said Daniels, smiling behind a bushy red beard. "Now that I have this opportunity, he's behind me 100 percent. It helps so much having him to talk to every day."

Daniels said he's also motivated to play for his hometown — Esky to locals, which is why the high school nickname is the Eskymos — with a population of 12,000 or so. It's two hours north of Green Bay, but the NFL allegiances there are shifting.

"Everybody in this town loves the kid," said Anderson, a union carpenter in his hometown. "There's a lot of Buccaneers fans in Packer country up here. There's still a lot of Packer fans, but the Bucs are creeping in."

Green Bay's starting center last year, Evan Dietrich-Smith, is now a leader on the Bucs' line after signing as a free agent in the offseason, and he is impressed with the physical approach he has seen from an unheralded young player much like himself in his early NFL years.

"He's a mauler. He'll put a body on a guy," Dietrich-Smith said of Daniels. "Everybody has some things to work on, myself included, but right now they're giving him a shot, and I think he's taking that opportunity and running with it."

Daniels understands the long odds he faces to make the roster, let alone beat out more experienced competition for a starting job. Saturday's preseason home game against the Dolphins is another chance to show what he can do, but he's appreciative of every day he has in a Bucs uniform.

"I wake up saying how blessed I am to be in this position," Daniels said. "I thought about this every single day as a kid, so to actually be there, having the opportunity to do it, is a blessing."

Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.

 
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