TAMPA — LeGarrette Blount received respect, then ridicule from new Bucs coach Greg Schiano.
When asked about the running back at the NFL owners meeting Wednesday, Schiano said Blount has "tons of ability."
But Blount's inability to protect the ball — nine fumbles, six of them lost over his two NFL seasons — could force the Bucs to look elsewhere for carriers.
"No one who touches the football will get touches if they don't protect the football," Schiano said. "That is one of our core covenants: the ball. It's so important, they named the game after it. So we make a big deal about that thing."
The Bucs, who own the No. 5 overall pick in April's draft, might have an opportunity to draft Alabama running back Trent Richardson, whom Schiano described as "a special talent."
Not coincidentally, one of Richardson's strengths is ball security. Richardson lost one fumble in 636 career touches at Alabama (carries, catches and kick returns). That fumble came during the sixth game of his freshman season; he then went 572 touches without one.
"I've studied a lot of tape on (Richardson). He's a very talented guy," Schiano said. "I met him briefly. I look forward to spending more quality time with him here before the draft. You can't argue with production.
"One of the things I think you really have to look at — it doesn't guarantee anything — but when you're looking at that running back making the jump from high school to college or college to the National Football League, one of the real barometers is production. Was he able to be consistently productive? And Trent has done it in what's arguably the toughest league in college football. So he's a special talent."
Schiano said repeatedly he wants the Bucs to run the ball and use play-action to take shots downfield. He credited Ray Rice with spearheading the turnaround at Rutgers and described the Ravens running back as a "bell cow."
Schiano said he has had running backs by committee but thrived at Rutgers under a feature-back system with players such as Rice. Blount has been one-dimensional in his two seasons with the Bucs and is rarely used in the passing game. In two seasons he has 20 receptions for 162 yards and no touchdowns.
Richardson rushed for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns last season for the national champion Crimson Tide. He averaged 31.6 touches over his final three regular-season games. Richardson also was a factor in the passing game, with 29 catches for 338 yards and three touchdowns.
"We've done it both ways," Schiano said. "We've turned around our program at Rutgers on the shoulders of Ray Rice. He was a bell-cow guy. I don't know what his average per carries was, but he certainly never walked off the field feeling like he hadn't had enough touches. I can promise you that.
"So I do believe if you have the right one, you just feed him. And great backs want the ball. I would check with Ray continuously. 'How are you feeling, big guy?' 'Keep giving me the ball. Keep giving me the ball.' That's all he wanted. 'Give me the ball. Give me the ball.'
"When you have those types of backs, I've been around some of them — Ki-Jana Carter was like that at Penn State —- at Miami we had a slew of them. They all want touches to get into a groove. But you've got to have that guy. I always talk about touches during a football game.
"It's kind of like a pizza and you earn your slice of the pie. The better the player you are, the more productive you are, we're going to find ways to get you touches. And you earn them. They're not handed out. You earn them."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Holding (and not holding) onto the ball
Fumbles by LeGarrette Blount, the Bucs' starting running back for most of the past two seasons, and Trent Richardson, the star running back at Alabama, who will be drafted high: