TAMPA — Solomon Patton was going to be crushed and there was nothing he could do about it. As a kick returner, it's part of the job description. You need steady hands, fast feet and lots of intestines. So the 5-foot-9, 176-pound former Florida captain closed his eyes and braced for the collision.The first to greet him near the Bucs bench were two of his biggest teammates. They slapped him on the back. They pounded him on the helmet. He gladly took the punishment."I pulled up one highlight from one of the kick returns he had where (offensive tackles) Anthony Collins and Demar Dotson were the first two guys to go over there and congratulate him," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "You have to earn your respect in the league and he's started to do that just by the way he plays."Patton, an undrafted free agent who signed in May, has played his way to the top of the Bucs' depth chart at punt and kick returner.In Saturday's 20-14 preseason loss to the Dolphins, Patton had three kickoff returns for 91 yards, a 30.3 average. He also returned three punts for 32 yards (10.7 average).A few months ago, Smith didn't think this was possible after watching Patton muff punt after punt during offseason workouts."You've seen him out in practice from the first day, saying, 'Who is that guy? What is he doing here?' " Smith said. "Maybe that was me saying that. But now he definitely belongs."A year ago, Patton had caught a total of eight passes in three seasons with the Gators. Patton, a Mobile, Ala., native who was recruited by Urban Meyer, learned early that the way to make a football team was through special teams.Then last season, Gators teammates voted Patton a captain. Though their 4-8 season was a huge disappointment, Patton was not. He led the Gators in receiving with 44 catches for 556 yards and six touchdowns.After being bypassed in the draft, the Bucs worked him out. They loved his sub-4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash. His size could become an issue, but he didn't lack heart."Obviously, I'm not going to grow any taller," Patton said. "I just suck it up and try to show everybody that size doesn't matter. I just go out there and run as fast as I can. That's the thing. I showed them I can make those tough plays. I can take those big hits and bounce right back up."That's because Patton, 23, has built a protective layer of muscle as his armor. A workout fiend, he won the strength and conditioning award at Florida, which is saying something.How much would Patton weigh naturally without pumping so much iron? "About 165," Patton said."He has to be fearless a little bit, too," Smith said.Heading into Saturday's all-important third preseason game at Buffalo, Patton seems to have a firm grip on the starting kickoff return job over running backs Bobby Rainey and Jeff Demps and an edge over Eric Page for the punt return spot."I pointed Solomon out in our meeting and asked him how much he weighed," Smith said. "He said, '176 pounds.' That's not really threatening to a whole lot of people, you think, 176 pounds. But for a small guy, he caught the ball well, hit it up in there on both (punt and kickoff) returns. So I liked that."And judging by their reception, so did his teammates.