CLEARWATER — Ask Ali Marpet what he has tried to work on most this offseason, and his response is, promisingly, quick and accurate.
"Snap," says the 24-year-old offensive lineman, making a transition — coach Dirk Koetter called it an experiment — from guard to center in the spring.
Marpet has snapped before and during practices to be an emergency center but never in a game — not with the Bucs, not at Division III Hobart College, not in high school, never. He's making up for it now.
"I've been able to get with Jameis (Winston) a couple of times, and otherwise, I've snapped with anyone who will catch the ball," he said. "I go until I feel good, whether that's 20 snaps or 100, whatever it ends up being."
Marpet was at ease Thursday afternoon, sitting at Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill in a Hawaiian shirt and sporting a new shaggy haircut, received "mostly well" by his teammates this week. He ate the restaurant's new giant Hawaiian rib eye at a charity eating event to donate $4,000 to Metropolitan Ministries and, as with football, embraced the challenge with an appetite.
"I'm a center," he says. "It's always been in the back pocket. I can still play guard. I know. I've played guard. I imagine they're not saying 'You're the starter, no matter what you do.' But they like the idea, so we're going to try it."
The Bucs still have veteran centers Evan Smith and Joe Hawley, who each got $1 million bonuses in the offseason and will compete in training camp. Marpet said he likes the confidence his coaches have in him, as he did when he was drafted.
"It's not the same transition, but how I went from college to the NFL, thrown into the fire," he said.
Marpet had not heard the praise that came his way Monday from Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who said Marpet can be a "dominant, next-level center." McCoy said Marpet is a "small-space guy," strong and dangerous in close quarters, and Marpet agreed.
"The less I can move, the better," he says with a laugh. "If I can just hold on to you, grab you, I think that'll help me."
The Bucs' offensive line returns nearly intact from last season — backup tackle Gosder Cherilus retired — so there's already a chemistry and bond in conditioning workouts a full three months before preseason training camp begins.
"It's a lot of fun. There's a lot of good energy," Marpet said. "It's nice to have everyone back. I think it's huge. There's already that feel in the offensive line room. Everyone's close and has played together. I think that will show."
Marpet's transition to center comes as the team hopes to have guard J.R. Sweezy — a major addition last year who missed the entire season with a back injury — back and healthy and perhaps starting in Marpet's old slot at right guard. Sweezy has been around the group for a year, but his personality can come out more in workouts.
"I think it's going to be awesome," Marpet said of Sweezy's impact. "He was a good player in Seattle, and there's no reason he won't be a good player here. He's a little bit of a jerk, which is good. It's what we want. A little bit of a mean streak. It's going to be fun to play with him."
The Bucs are only conditioning right now — they won't line up in pads as an offensive line together for another month, until organized team activities begin May 23. Marpet likes the idea that he would line up as a center, both then and in September.
"That we're going to start off with me at center, if that's the vision they have, that's really cool," he said.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.