TAMPA — The Fastest Man in Pads.
Quite the title, isn't it?
But that's what Jeff Demps is called. Just ask him.
"I think there's no doubt,'' Demps said.
He isn't bragging. He's just saying.
No one, he will tell you, is faster on a football field. Come to think of it, there aren't many faster away from the football field, either.
"Olympic-type speed,'' Bucs coach Lovie Smith said.
Smith means that literally.
Demps raced in the Olympics. That was after a splendid high school career at South Lake High in Groveland and a solid four-year turn as a running back for the Gators, including a key role on the 2008 national championship team.
Now he's putting down the relay baton and picking up a football again, this time with the Bucs. The 24-year-old is trying to make the team as a, well, what exactly, it's hard to say.
Kick returner? Running back? Slot receiver? All-purpose player?
They don't really have a title. So, for now, let's just settle for the fastest guy in pads. And when you have a guy like that?
"When you have the title 'fastest man in the NFL,' '' Smith said, "you search for ways to do something with him."
Just give him the darn ball.
He's a nightmare for a defense. While cornerbacks are covering receivers and safeties are trying to lock down the tight end, Demps can sneak out of the backfield or line up wide. With his speed, he can make linebackers look like statues. Forget drawing up intricate plays with complicated names. This is schoolyard stuff: "Just go deep and I'll throw it to you.''
The question is whether or not the Bucs have enough room for Demps.
The team already is pretty full at running back with Doug Martin, Mike James, Bobby Rainey and third-round pick Charles Sims.
Demps doesn't return punts. He does return kicks, but in today's NFL, how many kicks does a team return each game? One, two maybe? He doesn't cover kicks. So that pretty much leaves Demps as a situational player looking to create an advantage and exploit a mismatch on defense.
Then again, when you have a player with that kind of special speed, with that kind of game-breaking ability, don't you find ways not only to keep him but play him? Maybe two or three touches a game are all it takes to make a difference. If the stars align just right, maybe he could be Tampa Bay's version of what Darren Sproles was for years with the Saints.
"When he comes up (in drills), I hear the crowd ooh-ing and ahh-ing about something,'' Smith said. "And I know that when a linebacker is on the other side from him on one-on-one drills, they get back pretty far, a lot farther than they normally will.''
But before we get too excited, Smith said it's too early to know what Demps' role will be — or even if Demps will have a role.
The past couple of years, Demps has run track exclusively. He only started running track to stay in shape during football's offseason.
But he was so good at it that he became a full-time track star after college, even earning a spot on the United States' 2012 4x100 Olympic relay team. He stayed in Europe and ran on tracks all over the world for a couple of years. Football was put on hold until he showed up at One Buc Place last fall.
That's when he got the football bug again.
"I came in here last year to test out the waters,'' Demps said. "The two weeks that I was here, I just had the passion for it. I don't know if it was because I was away from home or what. … It was kind of like I had lost the love for the game. But when I came in for those two weeks, I got to practice with the guys, the atmosphere just felt like college again. And I just felt that passion again.''
Still, this is his first football training camp since his senior season at Florida in 2011. These days, instead of running around tracks against the wind, Demps is trying to dodge 240-pound rock 'em, sock 'em robots looking to knock his block off.
He switched up his offseason training to concentrate more on football. Demps trained with cones and blocking sleds. He caught passes and took some bumps. Two days into contact drills and Demps admitted he is already a bit sore. If there's a concern, it's that Demps is too small — 5 feet 7 and, he claims, 187 pounds — to take the beating of a long NFL season.
But unlike many track stars who became football players — such as "Bullet" Bob Hayes and Willie Gault and Renaldo Nehemiah — Demps was a football player first and a football player at heart.
"I love football,'' Demps said. "I've been doing this all my life.''
"Tough player,'' Smith said. "Sometimes, you get a track athlete and they'd rather work out before you put the pads on. But that's not the case with Jeff. Jeff will let you know that he is a football player.''
Many days, Smith will walk up to a player and ask him if he practiced that day. That's a bad thing. It's Smith's way of telling the player that he wasn't noticed. So far, he hasn't asked Demps that question.
"Jeff seems to get noticed just about every day,'' Smith said.
Now Demps hopes to get noticed enough to make this Bucs team.
"I'm all football now,'' Demps said.
If Demps has his way, he's all football now. And from now on.