TAMPA — It is a significant leap Kadeem Edwards wants to make this fall, and the rookie took a small step toward that Tuesday, lining up for the first time as the Bucs' first-team left guard on the opening day of mandatory minicamp.
It is still only June, and a non-contact practice at that, but precisely one month after being drafted in the fifth round out of Division I-AA Tennessee State, Edwards is exactly where he wants to be.
"I come here every day with a point to prove," said Edwards, 6 feet 4 and 313 pounds. "The coaches see it in me, in my effort, my ability to play. Even though I came from I-AA, (coach Lovie Smith) had a lot of faith in me."
It is no easy feat to start on the offensive line as a rookie, let alone as a fifth-round pick. Edwards also does this as a prospect from a I-AA school, where the level of competition can bring into question even a dominant career like Edwards had at Tennessee State, starting 41 games and finishing as a first-team All-American.
"Coming from that level, you have to come with a chip on your shoulder," said Edwards, who was actually the 11th player drafted from outside I-A college football. "Everybody thinks you're coming from a small school, that your football competition isn't as good as theirs. They drafted me for a reason."
The Bucs already have noticed Edwards. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy described him as "quicker than I thought." And another former I-AA player has been impressed as well.
"The main thing, I think, with Kadeem is his presence. It doesn't seem too big for him," said quarterback Josh McCown, who played in college at Sam Houston State. "He seems really locked in and really focused on doing the little things of that job … He seems comfortable, and that's a good thing. When you're in a huddle with a bunch of veterans and a rookie, the main thing you want to see from that guy is poise, and so far we see that."
The Bucs went into the draft with a glaring need at guard. Pro Bowl player Carl Nicks' status is in doubt due to a lingering toe injury and the effects of an MRSA infection, and many thought the team would use a high-round pick to address the position.
It didn't until the fifth round, but liked Edwards enough to choose him before more well-known prospects such as Stanford's David Yankey, who went two picks later to Minnesota.
Edwards is confident in his strength. He was the 27th lineman drafted last month, but only 15 linemen had more bench-press repetitions than the 26 he put up at the NFL combine. "If I wasn't physically ready," he said. "I wouldn't be able to take reps with the first line."
His progress in recent weeks has very much been a mental one, working hard during practices and with his playbook at night to learn the intricacies of NFL offensive line play. Even Tuesday, his first few snaps were quick, but as he got comfortable with the pace of practice, his confidence grew.
"Three weeks ago, it was hard, because it was fast, and it's a mental game," Edwards said.
Edwards will have plenty of competition from more experienced players between now and September, and Smith made it clear that the battle gets much more heated when practices are in full pads and with full contact in preseason camp next month.
Having said that, he likes what he has seen so far from the fifth-round pick.
"What Kadeem showed us are things we're looking for — good body, smart guy, has shown good agility in drills working with Coach (George) Warhop," Smith said. "The next step is for him to get into more live action with the rest of the group. … We're very pleased with our rookie lineman."
Guard remains perhaps the team's most uncertain position, and starting an unproven rookie may not alleviate those concerns until Edwards can show what he can do in real NFL games. The pursuit of that opportunity — of a starting job within his grasp — has motivated him since the day he was selected by the Bucs.
"(I'm) very, very eager," he said. "When they drafted me, I was very excited, because it's an open job. It's up for grabs. If you come in and prove your worth, you will be a starter."