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Clearing the hurdle of high expectations? // Bucs' Lars Tate confident he can still make an impact

Published Mar. 13, 1990|Updated Jul. 6, 2006

After two seasons with the Buccaneers, Lars Tate may be best known for a highlight-film run he made as a rookie against the Phoenix Cardinals. Vaulting into a pile of players on third-and-1, he tumbled over the stack headfirst, landed on his feet and sprinted 47 yards for a touchdown. It was a spectacular play, forever preserved on videotape as a small piece of NFL lore, that demonstrated the athletic gifts of Tate.

But his career has taken a few less fortunate tumbles since that run against the Cardinals. Despite leading the team in rushing the past two seasons, he is still trying to fulfill the expectations that were heaped upon him as a second-round draft pick.

And at 23, you would hardly expect to find Tate doing somersaults over the Bucs' search for a new "impact" running back.

Tampa Bay head coach Ray Perkins said finding a breakaway threat in the backfield was one of the Bucs' biggest needs heading into the off-season.

"(By an impact running back), I mean a guy who when he gets in the open field he runs across the goal line regardless how far downfield it is," Perkins said. "We need a guy who makes a lot on his own, who makes a lot of people miss (tackles)."

Such a player should be available when the Bucs pick fourth overall in the NFL draft next month. But where does that leave Tate, who only two years ago appeared to be the answer to the Bucs' rushing woes?

"I don't feel left out at all," Tate said. "I know what I can do and I'm very confident with my situation. I'm an experienced player and I've learned a lot. I'm familiar with our system. By no means am I intimidated by them wanting another running back.

"I know coach Perkins, and he has a lot of confidence in me. That's why he drafted me and why I was protected. He would not have brought me here if he didn't want me. I know my role on this team and I'm ready to contribute."

Tate arrived in Tampa last week from his off-season home in Smyrna, Ga., to participate in the Bucs' voluntary weight-training workouts. Although the season ended nearly three months ago, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound tailback has remained in extraordinary shape and vowed to make his third year in the league a memorable one.

Tate admits he had a fixed and pleasant view of his future in the NFL when the Bucs drafted him in the second round out of Georgia, where he had been the Bulldogs' most prolific rusher since Herschel Walker.

"The NFL is a whole different ballgame," Tate said. "You're playing against grown men who have a whole lot of experience, techniques, size and speed. In the pros, everybody is at the top of their game. Your first year is pretty much a rebuilding year. Some guys come in, and if they have a good (offensive) line in front of them like Barry Sanders, it opens up for them. But it's a whole different game. All I could tell a college player is to keep your chin up.

"I thought I'd come in here and it'd be like college at Georgia. But shoot, it wasn't like that. There's so much to learn and the players are stronger and faster. Pretty soon, you're getting caught from behind and it seems like you lose a step."

In his first season with the Bucs, Tate led all NFL rookie running backs in touchdowns (eight) and was the top rusher among first-year players in the conference (467 yards). Last year he improved those numbers by rushing for 589 yards and recorded eight more touchdowns, despite missing a game with a hip-pointer. Included in that total was a 112-yard effort against Chicago in the fifth week of the regular season. But Tate's production went south near the end of the regular season, when he averaged less than 3 yards per carry in his final four ballgames.

Some of the blame for the Bucs' beleaguered running attack can be pinned on their penchant for falling behind early, which forced them to abandon the ground game in order to play catch-up. For the season, Tate averaged just 11 carries per game.

"Last year I felt so much better than I did as a rookie," Tate said. "I also held my starting position the whole season. But we're a young team and I think we play catch-up ball sometimes. We just get behind and it's hard to keep running the ball.

"When I was at Georgia, all we did was run the ball and we were successful. The tailback is the man. Playing here, I've had to learn to get out of the backfield and catch the ball. I already knew how to catch the ball, but I just never had to do it in college."

The notion of the Bucs looking to the college ranks for another running back hardly qualifies as news anymore since they have drafted one by the second round three of the past four years.

This season, Perkins chose to protect just four running backs: Tate, William Howard, Sylvester Stamps and Jamie Lawson. Among those left unprotected were Bucs veteran James Wilder _ who signed as a Plan B free agent with the Washington Redskins last week _ and Don Smith, a former No.

2 draft pick from Mississippi State.

While Tate says he is not threatened by the Bucs' search for a new tailback, he admits wanting to catch the eye of Perkins during the off-season training program.

"It's much easier to work out with the guys than by yourself," Tate said. "Plus, the coaches see you out here working and it instills their confidence in you. I usually come here as soon as possible and stay a couple months. It gives you an edge going into training camp when you're already in shape. Then it's just a matter of concentrating on the mental part of the game.

"Just being used to this place, working out here again and knowing what to expect is a big advantage. I know what I have to do to get in shape and I know what to expect in training camp. This is my third year and I want to make the most of it. That's why I got here so early. I'm going to let it all hang out this year."

Because with the Bucs shopping for running backs, Tate knows he will have to finally land on his feet this season _ and hit the ground running.

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