TAMPA — Back in April, during the NFL draft, the Bucs were surprised to see one of their primary targets, tight end Luke Stocker, still available at the start of the fourth round.
The Bucs wanted the former Tennessee Volunteer badly. Bad enough to trade up 12 spots to ensure that the 6-foot-6, 253-pound prospect would wear a Tampa Bay uniform.
"This guy will be able to fit right into our offense and was a definite need that we had on our team," coach Raheem Morris said then.
But halfway through the preseason, the Bucs still haven't seen Stocker don pewter and red.
The lockout wiped out summer workouts. And when training camp finally did begin last month, Stocker was on crutches before the first day was complete.
"It was very frustrating," said Stocker, sidelined by a right hip injury. "It was one of those things out of my control."
Now that he's back, participating in a padded practice for the first time Sunday, Stocker is out to make up for lost time.
And that's a very good thing, because huge sections of the Bucs playbook depend on it.
With the Bucs planning to continue their frequent use of two-tight-end sets, they have planned all along on Stocker joining starter Kellen Winslow in those groupings.
Coaches haven't seen enough from the team's other four tight ends to indicate any of them are capable of filling the role.
"I think they expect me to come in and be the big, in-line, traditional tight end and be a big blocker," Stocker said. "We have Kellen, who's a guy they move around and do a lot of things with. I'm going to be more of the traditional guy who does the things tight ends normally do."
But first there's work to do. Stocker has attended all meetings and has been a keen observer during practice, but there's no substitute for what he'll get in his first full week of practice.
Stocker, who is projected to see action against the Dolphins during Saturday's preseason game, has significant ground to make up.
"I think the mental game, I'm definitely up to par there," he said. "I think the physical part, conditioning-wise, I'm catching up with the guys. Physically, I wasn't able to do anything for a couple of weeks.
"I just got to where I could run about a week ago. … But you really can't get in football shape until you play football. There's nothing like the intensity. It's hard to match unless you're actually out there playing. I'm working toward that."
Elements such as timing and techniques will have to be improved. But Stocker thinks he has an advantage over most rookies when it comes to learning the playbook. Having played under three different coaching staffs at Tennessee, Stocker has experience learning new schemes.
Considering how extensively the Bucs intend to use him, that will be key. Look for Stocker to play an important role as a blocker in the running game, as a receiver and in picking up blitzes. The last area is key because coaches are expecting an increased number of blitzes this season as defenses try to take advantage of offenses' limited preparation.
Already the Bucs are seeing impact from the rookie. The first impressions after he rejoined practice over the weekend were positive. And it seems Stocker's blocking prowess has even motivated Winslow.
"I'm really fired up about Luke," Morris said. "He certainly looked different in our running game. In our run period, he made Kellen look like a good blocker."
Winslow likely will be among the team's leading receivers for a third straight season, but don't dismiss Stocker's role in the passing game. His status as a dual threat (blocker and receiver) makes him a difficult assignment for defenses that might not always account for him. And Stocker's speed and athleticism are upgrades over that of free agent departure John Gilmore, now with the Steelers.
Stocker was Tennessee's third-leading receiver last season, catching 39 passes for 417 yards.
"I consider myself a very well-rounded tight end," Stocker said. "That's what I pride myself on. Everything I do, I want to do it very well.
"Obviously, the tight end is huge in the passing game. I don't want to overlook that when I talk about my blocking. When I get the opportunity to make a play, I expect to make it."
The Bucs have had that expectation since the draft. Soon, they hope, it will finally come to pass.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]
Preseason: Saturday: vs. Dolphins, 7:30 * | Sept. 1: at Redskins, 7:30
All games on Ch. 10 * subject to NFL blackout rules