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Tampa Bay Buccaneers will spend preseason looking at running back combinations

TAMPA — When Pam Iorio was Tampa's mayor, she developed a relationship with the Bucs and coach Raheem Morris.

She would periodically stop by practice and do her best to pump up the team. And she always took an interest in one particular thing, Morris said.

She didn't exactly issue an executive order, but Iorio made it clear she wanted to see more of a certain player.

"She loves (Earnest) Graham," Morris said. "I think I got a call from her once a week talking about giving him more carries."

Finally, that opportunity exists.

The Bucs' running back situation changes without free agent Cadillac Williams on the roster and with the team noncommittal on re-signing him. Williams became the third-down back after LeGarrette Blount became the starting tailback in 2010, but Graham is a candidate to assume the role in 2011. Actually, he's the leading candidate.

"I know right now, if we played a game today, he'd be that guy," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said of Graham.

But Graham, 31, isn't the only back who could see an expanded role. Kregg Lumpkin, acquired off waivers from the Packers last season but used sparingly, could be a factor. Sixth-round pick Allen Bradford and former Oklahoma Sooner Mossis Madu, an undrafted free agent, have a chance to carve out roles, too.

Morris is all about competition, and he has an environment in the backfield that will promote that because the landscape looks much different than last training camp. Blount, 24, and Lumpkin, 27, were acquired after the 2010 preseason. At this time last year, Williams was the unquestioned starter.

Also a year ago, young up-and-comer Kareem Huggins was leading the team in rushing during the preseason. But his devastating knee injury has effectively forced the team to move on. Huggins, an exclusive-rights free agent, was not tendered the requisite offer at the end of last season, so the Bucs no longer own his rights.

So, the Bucs will spend much of this preseason looking at backfield combinations. Blount took the league by storm with 1,007 yards as an undrafted rookie last season, and the Bucs will attempt to use him on some passing downs in the fall, but Morris also intends to use complementary backs.

Like Lumpkin.

"I'm really fired up to see what Kregg Lumpkin can do in a Tampa Bay uniform," Morris said.

Olson is, too, saying on Sunday he'll give Lumpkin a chance to compete with Graham for the role of No. 2 tailback.

Another factor is the development of fullback Erik Lorig. If Lorig, 24, continues to ascend, Olson said, he could become the starter, freeing Graham to become a tailback on a more permanent basis.

For Graham, taking a prominent ball-carrying role is hardly unprecedented. He led the Bucs in rushing in 2007, emerging from No. 3 on the depth chart after injuries to Williams and Michael Pittman. Concerns about the injuries quickly disappeared once Graham began tearing through opponents, recording three 100-yard games and running for 10 touchdowns in 10 starts.

And here's a little-known fact that speaks volumes to his versatility and value. Against Detroit in 2007, Graham caught 13 passes — a franchise single-game record. It's his ability to do so many things that intrigues the Bucs and, frankly, has prolonged Graham's career. Undrafted out of Florida in 2003, the Naples native is entering his eighth season with the same club.

"That's nothing to sneeze at," he said. "It's tough to do, especially at my position. So it's something I'm very proud of, having the opportunity to finish (my career) here. I'm really thankful for that every day."

But Graham wants more than that. He also wishes to have an impact with more touches after being primarily a fullback the past two seasons.

"I definitely miss it," Graham said. "Even last year, when I touched it, I showed I can make plays. Just knowing the game of football, I know I can make things happen. I can definitely give the offense an advantage. When I'm on the field, you don't know if I'm a fullback or if I'm going to go out on a (pass) route or what I'm going to do. So, there's added bonus to having me in the mix, and I think that's what they like."

You might hear Morris use the term "Insurance Graham," the suggestion being that he's always there when you need him. Don't expect that to change.

"Whatever I'm called upon to do — whether it be third-down back, halfback, fullback, goal-line, short yardage —I've done all that in my career. … That's been my value," Graham said. "That's the only reason I've been with one team for eight years.

"It's not just because I'm a nice guy."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers will spend preseason looking at running back combinations 07/31/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 31, 2011 10:28pm]
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