For most fans, the story of the Bucs and Ali Marpet began around 9:10 p.m. on May 1 last year, when Tampa Bay traded up four spots into the second round to draft a little-known prospect from tiny Hobart College, a Division III school in Geneva, N.Y. • Marpet quickly went from small-school phenom to NFL starter, taking over as the Bucs' right guard, perhaps the least likely of four rookie starters who helped Tampa Bay improve from two wins to six in 2015. • The story actually starts in the fall of 2014, when Marpet first found himself on the NFL radar, and a single Bucs scout noticed the dominating offensive lineman and started making a case for why Tampa Bay should take him.
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When scouts such as the Bucs' Andre Forde stopped by Hobart, Marpet was usually told he rated as a "priority free agent," meaning a player not among the 250 or so drafted each year but one signed to an NFL roster, with an outside shot at making a team. Given that, his goal wasn't even to get drafted — Hobart hadn't had an NFL player since 1937 — but just to find a way to stick with an NFL team.
"Obviously that changed," Marpet said. "A lot changed in a short amount of time."
Go to an Ohio State-Michigan game as a scout, or Florida-Florida State, and there might be two dozen NFL prospects to watch. At a Division III game, you can watch one player the whole game, studying everything he does, good and bad.
Forde gave Marpet a grade that equates to a "developmental starter," taking a stand and going to bat for him to the Bucs with a confidence that's hard to do with an unheralded player from off the beaten path.
"Andre was the first to get us on him," said Mike Biehl, the Bucs' director of college scouting. "A lot of times, when you have a smaller-school prospect, it's hard to jump on the table and say, 'This guy's going to be a great player.' That being said, give Andre props. He did that from the get-go."
The Bucs watched tape of Marpet at Hobart — where he often played to crowds of fewer than 1,000 — and could only tell so much with NFL relevance.
"It raised my antenna, but you've got 500 guys you're looking at," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said of the wide net cast early in the draft process. "You could watch Hobart tape, and he's just (dominating) everywhere. But he's playing low-level comp. He passed the test at the Senior Bowl."
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Marpet stopped being any kind of NFL secret at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where he lined up against top prospects from major programs and stood out, erasing concerns that he had only shined against lesser competition.
"He more than held his own. We walked away, collectively, thinking this guy might have the most talent out of all the guards there," Licht said.
Licht gives Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage an assist for recognizing Marpet and getting him to Mobile, joking that he has an open invitation to stay in his suite at any Bucs home game.
"Ali took the opportunity and just ran with it," said Savage, a former GM who likes spotting small-school talents. "He really capitalized on it and built some momentum for him. It was an awesome story from where he started to where he ended up. He had an amazing ascent."
Marpet next helped himself at the NFL combine, where he was the only D-III player invited. His 40-yard time of 4.98 seconds was the fastest of any offensive lineman; quarterback Jameis Winston, 76 pounds lighter, ran a 4.97. Marpet, always competitive, had hoped to run a 4.90.
"I was actually disappointed with myself, even though I was the fastest offensive lineman," he said.
Licht wasn't disappointed. He saw Marpet at the combine and was impressed enough that he sent a text message to the Glazers, who own the Bucs: "Got our favorite guy," he wrote. "Ali Marpet."
Marpet, for all the buzz surrounding him, would check online mock drafts for his name. He can remember one that went deep enough, projecting him to go in the fifth round.
"I was like, 'This would be insane. Imagine if I was a fifth-rounder,' " he recalled. "One random website, I don't even remember which one, but I was like, 'Oh, this is incredible.' "
The day before the draft, asked when he thought he'd be picked, he remembers telling the NFL Network the fourth round.
"Even then, when I said that, I was trying to (sound) confident in my abilities," he said. "I didn't even think that. Hey, if I'm a fifth- or sixth-round pick, I'll be okay."
Marpet, who visited One Buc Place before the draft, was widely regarded as a third-day draft pick — as high as the fourth round — but not likely anything more.
"If somebody really gets excited, third round," former NFL executive Charley Casserly said on the NFL Network.
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The draft is split over three days, and while Marpet had a group of about 20 friends and relatives at his house that Friday night for the second and third round, he really didn't expect to be drafted until the next day.
As the second round wound down, the Bucs had the first pick of the third, and Marpet was close enough that Licht decided to make a move to ensure he'd get his man. He made a trade with the Colts, trading up from No. 65 to 61 — all it took was swapping fourth-round picks, sliding down from No. 109 to 128.
The phone rang at the Marpet house in New York.
"We were kind of unprepared. Like, 'What do we do?' " Marpet said. "We didn't know what to do. We just ended up hanging out at my house. We went out the next night."
Marpet remembers the call well, first talking to then-coach Lovie Smith, followed by Licht.
"Did you get a good feeling about how we felt about you when you came down?" Smith asked him. "You're going to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneer."
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Of the three teams that the Bucs jumped in trading up for Marpet, Licht correctly anticipated two of them taking guards — the Seahawks drafted two in the fourth round and the Patriots took one in the same round. It proved a small price to pay.
"I didn't want to risk it," Licht said. "I had a relationship with (Colts GM) Ryan Grigson, and we'd talked about doing some horse trading. I just had a little bit of a gut feeling."
Licht had the same feeling the next day — he again moved up four spots from No. 128, giving up a seventh-rounder to nab LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander 124th, finding another surprise starter and draft gem.
Marpet, entrenched as a starting guard and superior run blocker as he enters his second NFL season, is proud to know his name will come up in this year's draft as NFL teams again decide how high to go after unlikely prospects from small schools.
"Every time I'm playing, I still feel like I'm representing Division III football," he said. "There were other guys before me — (receivers) Pierre Garcon, Cecil Shorts — and I just thought, 'Hey, I can do this.' "
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.