TAMPA — Bucs rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers walked off the field and immediately began to reflect on his travails of the past several months.
After an untimely knee injury, a precipitous fall in the draft and a long wait to disprove many doubts about him, Friday — the first day of training camp — couldn't come soon enough.
"It was long overdue," Bowers said.
And he didn't disappoint, running and cutting and planting and engaging offensive linemen with ease, showing the explosion that made him so coveted before January knee surgery kicked off months of speculation about his medical status in the short and long term.
His performance was a promising sign for the Bucs, who made Bowers the second half of a 1-2 defensive end punch in April's draft. Tampa Bay selected him 51st overall in the second round out of Clemson after choosing Iowa's Adrian Clayborn in the first round. Now the team hopes to make them the cornerstones of its defensive line for years to come.
But until now, it was common to question whether Bowers was in a position to be counted on that heavily given the numerous rumors about the injury to his right knee. Some teams said they took him off their draft boards because of it. League insiders suggested Bowers will be a "one-contract player," predicting the injury would shorten his career.
Bowers, 21, said the concerns were overblown, though he admits the surgery was more involved than he originally believed it would be.
"It was definitely frustrating, hearing one thing and then finding out it was another thing," he said. "You just have to keep faith and try to persevere. I had to fight through it."
Now that he's here, he has a few objectives.
"I'm definitely hungry," said Bowers, who led the nation with 16 sacks in 2010. "Ten defensive ends went before me. Thirty-one teams passed up on me. So I have 31 points to make.
"All the haters, I'd tell them to watch on Sundays."
Bowers spent some of Friday's morning practice with the first team at left defensive end, with third-year veteran Kyle Moore also spending time there.
The lockout prevented rookies from spending the summer immersed in the playbook and working with their coaches. But new defensive line coach Keith Millard expressed confidence that Bowers and other rookies can become acclimated with extra time with coaches in the coming weeks.
"We'll bring him along and get him up to speed and get him on his feet," Millard said.
Another complication brought about by the lockout was the inability of the Bucs to examine Bowers during his rehabilitation. The team drafted him with full knowledge of his medical concerns but wasn't able to consult with him until the lockout ended this week. The training staff was pleasantly surprised by his condition, though Bowers is likely to be limited to a certain amount of work during camp.
"We knew he'd be one of those guys who we didn't really know the plan (for)," coach Raheem Morris said. "We'd have to figure it out in camp. Now, having the ability to develop that plan and go out and do it and execute it and get him ready for the first game, I feel really good about it."
There's already a small measure of gratification for Morris and general manager Mark Dominik after their much-debated draft choice.
"The scrutiny was given by (media)," Morris said. "We were pretty confident when we took (Bowers) with the risk and reward from the first day we drafted him. I am extremely excited to see him get out there."
For the Bucs and Bowers, the wait is over.
"I feel great," he said. "I'm just ready to start the season."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.