TAMPA — Jamon Meredith and Demar Dotson have been friends since the workouts in the spring, when the two Bucs offensive linemen were beginning their battle for a roster spot.
The two large men are both from small Southern towns, and they have bonded over many meals at Moes Southwest Grill, talking about their football journeys and shared religious faith.
But neither envisioned a scenario where they would line up side by side as starters.
"Nobody did," Meredith said. "We were looking at each other (in camp) like, 'Who is going to be the last tackle on the team?' God works in mysterious ways."
In the next-man-up mentality of the NFL, one man's injury leads to another's opportunity. That's how Meredith, 26, who is on his sixth NFL team in four years, got his long-awaited shot last week against the Chiefs, starting at right guard. He will be there again Sunday against the Saints.
The Bucs have been trying to fill the void created by the season-ending knee injury to two-time Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph, who was hurt in the preseason. And after the running game struggled the first four weeks, Meredith made the switch from tackle and unseated Ted Larsen, who had replaced Joseph, during an open competition last week.
"It was a big milestone for me," said Meredith, who made his fifth NFL start and first since 2009. "It's been a long journey, and I've still got a long ways to go."
The position switch isn't easy. Meredith says there are different techniques, different terminology playing inside, as well as facing opposing tackles who are usually more powerful than the quicker ends. "It's a different animal," he said.
But Meredith has considered himself versatile since his days at the University of South Carolina, and the strength of the 6-foot-5, 312-pound Simpsonville, S.C., native helped the Bucs to a season-high 145 rushing yards last week.
"He looked really good," veteran left guard Carl Nicks said. "He didn't give up (any) pressure, he did his job. I think he probably exceeded expectations."
Said coach Greg Schiano: "He wasn't perfect. But when he does hit you, he moves you."
Meredith has moved around a lot since he was drafted in the fifth round by the Packers in 2009. He wasn't in Green Bay long, as he was signed off its practice squad in early September by the Bills, who gave him a chance to start four games in place of injured tackle Brad Butler.
But Meredith was cut by Buffalo in October 2010 and again after spending the next 12 days with the Lions. He spent one year with the Giants, appearing in three games, before playing in four games with the Steelers last season.
Throughout all the moves, and canceled apartment leases, Meredith kept his perspective. Raised by two strong parents (James and Irene) in what he described as a "Christian-orientated town" of about 15,000 — where "everybody knew everybody" — he never gave up.
"I was blessed I only missed one week of football since my career started," Meredith said. "So I'm not complaining at all. Bouncing around, people could easily get discouraged and lose the faith. And I just kept the faith. I knew eventually all this would pay off."
What also helped Meredith was the support of his wife, Teeanna, whom he met through Facebook his freshman year at South Carolina and married in July in Greenville.
"We went on a blind date, and the rest is history," Meredith said. "She went through the ringer with me, man. She stood by me through the ups and downs."
Dotson, the starting right tackle since Week 2 after beating out veteran Jeremy Trueblood, jokes that Teeanna is also the reason he doesn't see his buddy Meredith out as much anymore.
Meredith laughs, saying he likes just relaxing and watching reality TV at home.
"As far as going out, I'm too old for that stuff," Meredith said, smiling. "I've had my fun. It's time to chill out."