TAMPA — The message has been repeated often to the Buccaneers' rookies during the long offseason:
Be ready to contribute in meaningful ways, coach Greg Schiano keeps exhorting them.
It's a refrain every team's rookie class hears repeatedly given stringent NFL roster limits and the need for rookies to play on special teams. But in Tampa Bay, as the Bucs' rookies took the field for the first time Thursday at One Buc Place, such talk represents more than lip service.
The Bucs' class of rookies has a unique opportunity to assume central roles this season. After the organization pushed the reset button, turning over much of the roster and installing a new coaching staff, all players are generally on even footing — even rookies.
"I think there's great opportunities, maybe more than any other year," Schiano said. "Not because of who they're competing with but because those veterans don't have as much of a head start in this scheme. They have a head start in being veteran players, but they don't have a head start in this specific scheme. So, our rookies, I've told them these are great opportunities to get yourself ready to battle for a job."
The environment is ideal for the rookies to carve out niches. The new coaching staff has few preconceived notions or preexisting relationships with returning players.
The Bucs' 4-12 record in 2011 strongly suggests there are weak spots on the roster, despite numerous offseason additions. That, too, helps the rookies.
The NFL permitted rookies to report to training camp early, and the Bucs are taking advantage with extensive on-field and classroom work. That allowed the rookie class, with the exception of unsigned safety Mark Barron, the team's first-round pick, to take the field a week before veterans report for training camp.
Barron, running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David could all start, while others such as fifth-round linebacker Najee Goode and seventh-round running back Michael Smith could be important reserves.
It's an unfamiliar experience for these rookies to be viewed this way. When they arrived on their respective college campuses, most could say with some certainty they would play sparingly or not at all.
Nothing could be further from the truth in a league with just 46 players active on game days. Martin, from Boise State, already can see the contrast.
"I feel like I have a definite chance to (play)," he said. "In college, I redshirted. I had to wait for the (older) two guys to get out there and eventually compete to get to that top spot. It's definitely different."
Smith, from Utah State, was starstruck when he arrived after the draft. But Schiano's message has since gotten through.
"It's a little shock at first," he said. "It's like an all-star team. Nobody's weak from the right guard to the left guard."
His thoughts now? "I'm trying to take their spot," he said. "I have to do what I have to do."
On Thursday, Schiano quietly observed which rookies spent the past month reviewing playbooks. The rookies will work on fundamentals and review details of the schemes, getting coaches' time before the rest of the 90-man preseason roster arrives.
It's "individual attention, which maybe a week from now they're not going to get," Schiano said. "We're going to work our tails off to make sure they do get repetitions, because that's the only way you prove whether you can or can't. (But) when there's more people here, there's less reps."
If the rookies take advantage of the opportunities, look for many to get a lot of those reps.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @HolderStephen.