JACKSONVILLE — The great quarterback race might be a dead heat halfway through the preseason.
But no matter who spins the football for the Bucs this season, he would be wise to throw it to Sammie Stroughter.
The seventh-round pick from Oregon State returned a kickoff 75 yards to set up one touchdown then provided the go-ahead score with a 9-yard catch from Luke McCown in Saturday's 24-23 win over the Jaguars.
On a night when the Bucs' top receiver, Antonio Bryant, remained in Tampa recovering from knee surgery and Michael Clayton took himself out during the first half to rest a sore hamstring, Stroughter became the stand-in and stood out.
"I was a bad coach for six rounds," coach Raheem Morris said. "But this young man has come in here and done nothing but good things for us. We're excited. We're ecstatic. We're happy to see him. I'm glad I got him when I did."
The Bucs trailed 14-3 with 7:35 left before halftime, and neither McCown nor Byron Leftwich had done much to stake a claim to the starting quarterback job.
That's when Stroughter, the 233rd pick in April, took over. He took a kickoff at the 5, spun out of some tackles and raced down the sideline until he was pushed out of bounds at the Jaguars 20.
Two plays later, McCown fired a 17-yard touchdown to tight end Jerramy Stevens.
"You've got to trust the guys that are around you and just hit the hole as hard as you can," Stroughter said. "You've got to continue to work hard and … not let the first guy tackle you."
The Bucs' next possession ended with Stroughter cradling the ball in the end zone after McCown threaded a pass through two defenders.
McCown looked a little sharper than Leftwich, completing 6 of 9 passes for 51 yards and two touchdowns. Leftwich went 6-of-12 for 63 yards and didn't get the Bucs into the end zone.
If McCown wins the job, he owes at least some credit to Stroughter, whom even the Bucs passed on for six rounds.
Stroughter was extremely productive at Oregon State. He had 1,293 receiving yards in 2006 and 1,040 in 2008. But those performances were sandwiched around a bout with depression.
"I've been through what I've been through, and that's going to take care of itself by coming out here and proving to people I'm well worth it," Stroughter said.
"The seventh round, that's just where they placed you at. That's not where you are in your heart or mentally."
Stroughter wasn't the only rookie making noise.
Quarterback Josh Freeman started the second half and immediately led an 80-yard touchdown drive in 11 plays capped by his 28-yard run. It showcased the playmaking ability of first-round pick, who spiked the ball in the end zone so hard that he lost his balance and fell.
"It was good for him to have success," Morris said. "It was a bad celebration. We've got to work on that."
If there was a downer for the Bucs, it came on defense. Troy Williamson burned them for 147 yards on three first-half catches.
On the first offensive play of the game, quarterback David Garrard froze safety Sabby Piscitelli with a play-action fake before launching a 74-yard touchdown to Williamson.
The Bucs had checked into a Cover 2.
"Sabby set his feet a little bit," Morris said. "You mess around with a fast receiver … Troy Williamson ran by him."
Later in the half, cornerback Elbert Mack, who left the game with an ankle sprain, was beaten on a crossing route by Williamson. Mack collided with Piscitelli, and Williamson turned the play into a 61-yard gain.