TAMPA — Sammie Stroughter approaches his role as a kick returner the way he views his career.
His job is to make people miss him.
The rookie from Oregon State returned a kickoff 97 yards Sunday in the Bucs' 28-21 loss to the Panthers and was named the NFC special teams player of the week Wednesday.
He ran through and around safety Charles Godfrey and kicker John Kasay on his way to tying Clifton Smith for the longest kickoff return in club history.
But with each big play, Stroughter is trying to make 31 other teams regret passing on him until the seventh round of the draft, when the Bucs made the 23-year-old receiver the 233rd player chosen overall.
"I will always have a chip on my shoulder," Stroughter said. "Even coming from high school to college, I always had a chip on my shoulder. There's always been a little knock. … I'm not the fastest, I'm not the strongest. But when it comes down to it, I'm going to work my hardest for the team and everybody else."
At 0-6, the Bucs could use uplifting news, and Stroughter's award qualifies. But rather than be warmed by the spotlight, Stroughter preferred to remain in the shadows with his teammates.
"We lost," Stroughter said, shrugging. "It's a good honor, I guess, but we lost. And the main motivation for this team and me is to win a game. I'd much rather sacrifice any of that to win that first game."
Stroughter got the opportunity to return the third kickoff for a score in club history because Smith, a Pro Bowl kick returner, was the victim of an illegal hit by Carolina's Dante Wesley as he waited to field a punt late in the first half. Wesley was suspended a week without pay by the NFL.
Stroughter said he felt Smith's presence during his touchdown return. "I can hear him coaching me up as I'm going through the whole thing," Stroughter said "When he's out there, I'm shadowing him and doing different things like that, trying to see what he sees. When I'm out there, I'm a reflection of him. I'm a reflection of all those guys. It's just a matter of seeing that and understanding that and not getting tackled.
"That's the most exciting play in football … the kickoff return and the punt return. What play can turn 80 yards? … It's one of those things where you start to believe in the scheme more and you have people making that extra effort to lay out and sacrifice their bodies. You're going to see it starting like a wildfire."
But Stroughter has an even bigger role for the Bucs, who face the Patriots on Sunday in London. He has developed into their primary target on third down. When the Bucs go to their three-receiver set, Stroughter is in the slot and has learned how to sit in zone coverage and make clutch catches for first downs, a role more or less perfected the past four seasons by veteran Ike Hilliard, who was released in February.
"I'm always trying to learn," Stroughter said. "I see film from Ike Hilliard, I watch (the Patriots') Wes Welker. I watch people around the league that have mastered it. And I'll bet if you asked them the same question, they'd say they're trying to learn each and every day. It's one of those things where you're always trying to grow and never thinking you have all the answers. I'm a pup. That's how I'm trying to look at it. I'm a sponge trying to soak everything up."
The story of how Stroughter fell to the seventh round is well documented. He was a natural receiver in college, with 164 receptions for 2,653 yards and 14 touchdowns, and compiled 4,299 career all-purpose yards. But at 5 feet 10 and 189 pounds, he was considered too small and slow for some NFL teams.
In 2007, an offseason of emotional turbulence, including the deaths of three people close to him, resulted in Stroughter dealing with clinical depression. He missed the season-opener, then lacerated his kidney in Week 4. The NCAA granted him a medical hardship, and he regained his senior year, but the depression diagnosis scared some teams.
Thus, Stroughter may be one of the real steals in the draft. He's the Bucs' second-leading wide receiver in catches with 13 for 151 yards, behind Antonio Bryant's 14 catches for 178 yards.
"We're not asking him to be a Randy Moss or anything," said Michael Clayton, who has 11 catches for 154 yards. "His job is strictly to master third down and put himself in a position where we can use his ability, his body frame and all of that.
"His head is in the right place, man. He listens. And everything about the kid says he's going to be a great player."