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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' youth movement showing promise

TAMPA — The Glazer Children's Museum opened in September on Tampa's waterfront park, with hands-on activities to spark the imagination and curiosity of tiny tykes.

The same month, the family that owns the Bucs unveiled another Tampa attraction that caters to kids: The Buccaneers, the youngest team in the league, with an average age of 25 years, 288 days.

Seven rookies started for the Bucs in last week's 31-16 win over the Panthers, a list that did not include running back LeGarrette Blount, who entered on the second play. By comparison, the Panthers are the second-youngest team and started three rookies.

Raheem Morris, 34, is the youngest coach in the NFL, four months younger than the Broncos' Josh McDaniels. When Morris was the assistant defensive backs coach, he prepared the young guys.

"You've got to be willing to take chances and put guys out there," Morris said. "Not everybody would've played (safety) Cody Grimm. Not everybody would've played (guard) Ted Larsen; not everybody would've played some of these young rookies that we have. Not everybody would've played LeGarrette Blount.

"But I give my coaching staff a lot of credit for taking the time with all these young football players and … catching them up to speed fast."

That said, even Morris couldn't have imagined that the Bucs would zoom up the growth charts like Tom Hanks in Big.

The Bucs are 6-3 heading into Sunday's game against the 49ers. Even more impressive is that nearly every rookie is starting or making a major contribution.

Last week, rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, this year's third overall pick, got things started by forcing Panthers running back Mike Goodson to fumble. Rookie linebacker Dekoda Watson, making his first pro start, pounced on the ball near midfield.

A few plays later, second-year quarterback Josh Freeman threw a pass to rookie receiver Arrelious Benn, a second-round pick from Illinois, who turned upfield and dived for a touchdown.

Rookie wideout Mike Williams, who leads all first-year players with 627 yards receiving and has five touchdowns, drew double-teams to create opportunities for tight end Kellen Winslow.

Rookie Erik Lorig, a seventh-round pick as a defensive end from Stanford, started at fullback and helped spring Blount for 91 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. The game was punctuated by Cadillac Williams' 45-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, made possible by a block from Larsen.

"I think it's extremely special," center Jeff Faine said. "I think these guys are playing beyond their years. I think a lot of it is instilled through leadership from the top down, starting with Coach Morris. He instills confidence in these guys and demands a lot out of these guys. He beats it into their head that we're counting on them. It's not a stress thing; it's not a pressure thing. It's more along the lines of we-believe-in-you thing.

Only two Bucs draft picks from the 2010 class have failed to make major contributions: defensive tackle Brian Price, a second-rounder from UCLA who went on injured reserve with a pelvic stress fracture after five games, and cornerback Myron Lewis, a third-round choice from Vanderbilt who is playing behind veterans Aqib Talib, Ronde Barber and E.J. Biggers.

Grimm said the Bucs' freshman class bonded when they arrived at rookie minicamp.

"Everyone is real level-headed, starting with Gerald," Grimm said of McCoy. "You don't get that very often with a first-round guy. A lot of times, the money will get to him or whatever. But everyone wants to be successful and work hard, and I think that has a lot to do with it.

"Slowly, a few rookies started getting time out there. It really started with Mike and Gerald. Then everyone just kept working hard. All of a sudden, guys are playing and having success. The coaches do a really good job keeping us in meetings, making sure we know our stuff. If we wanted to be on this team, we had to step up to the veterans' level. I think a lot of us did that."

Of course, this was the plan mapped out by general manager Mark Dominik and Morris, who had a 3-13 season in 2009 but acquired the biggest piece of the puzzle — Freeman, the team's first-round pick from Kansas State — in the 2009 draft.

"That's why I talked about how important this 2010 draft class was," Dominik said. "I think it's all showing now because that's why seven or eight rookies started and 13 played. That was a heck of a draft class.

"Freeman was the cornerstone last year. This was going to be the foundation moving forward, and they've done that."

Dominik and college scouting director Dennis Hickey also did a good job of targeting rookies on the waiver wire. Perhaps no player has made a bigger impact this season than Blount, the former Oregon star who went undrafted because of his infamous punch of a Boise State player that led to a suspension.

Blount signed with the Titans and played well in the preseason but was released. Coach Jeff Fisher says he regrets that decision every day. The plan was to sneak Blount back on the Titans' practice squad, but the Bucs claimed him off waivers.

"I don't know what happened," Blount said. "(Fisher) said they had to make some roster moves. I was hoping I got claimed by someone else. I didn't want to be on the practice squad. This wasn't fun to me."

The Bucs had done their homework on Blount and included him among the 30 players who could make a pre-draft visit. When Derrick Ward reported to training camp 16 pounds overweight and played poorly, the Bucs looked toward Blount.

"What you saw was strength and power and vision," Dominik said. "You'd like to see it transfer to this level, and you saw all those traits again. Another thing that was a tipoff the (Titans) liked him was they didn't play him enough. They didn't want to showcase him."

Blount leads the team in rushing with 359 yards and four touchdowns on 75 carries.

With so many young players, the Bucs' future would seem bright. But Morris said his task is to make sure his team focuses on the present and that the kids keep having a blast.

"I know I'm trying to win football games," Morris said. "I know (49ers coach) Mike Singletary doesn't care I've got seven rookies coming. I know a lot of people don't. The perspective I have is we talked about the longevity of winning. We talked about building a team that can go out here and win for years to come. We talked about it for a long time, and now it's just starting to become a reality for everyone else.

"It's easy to say. It's hard to do. And now, these guys are doing it."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' youth movement showing promise 11/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 4:46pm]
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