QUARTERBACK: The only controversy the Bucs have to endure pits the Dilfer believers against the Dilfer doubters. Both groups will no doubt claim victory at various times during the season. Since last turning the fortunes of the team over to a franchise quarterback (Vinny Testaverde) in late 1987, the Bucs have gone through the likes of Joe Ferguson, Chris Chandler, Jeff Carlson, Steve DeBerg and Craig Erickson behind center. The question is, if Dilfer goes down, or struggles mightily, can Casey Weldon or Todd Philcox salvage a season?
RUNNING BACK: The Bucs didn't find out enough about Dilfer during his rookie season, but they did find a tailback to build around in rookie Errict Rhett (1,011 yards in 284 carries). He will try to become just the second Buc to rush for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, joining James Wilder (1984-85). Having waived both of their "true" fullbacks, the Bucs will employ an H-back, tight end Dave Moore. Veteran utility back Vince Workman avoided being a salary-cap cut and will back up Rhett and Moore. First-year man Jerry Ellison and comeback story extraordinaire Bobby Joe Edmonds round out the depth chart.
RECEIVER: The Bucs go deep here. Alvin Harper survived a preseason injury scare and is being counted on to give Tampa Bay the big-play receiver it has lacked for some time. Steady Lawrence Dawsey will play roughly the same role Harper did as Michael Irvin's sidekick in Dallas. Tampa Bay will use plenty of four-receiver sets, and why not with Horace Copeland, Courtney Hawkins and Charles Wilson all turning in lead-receiver performances at times. The training camp battle for the No. 6 spot was won by Lamar Thomas/Tyree Davis.
TIGHT END: With Jackie Harris backed up by Tyji Armstrong, the Bucs think they have the best receiving/blocking duo in the NFC. Tampa Bay is eager to integrate Harris into the offense more fully, after losing him to injury after nine games in '94. Both third TE Moore and Armstrong will see duty in the H-back formation, playing more fullbacklike duties than tight end.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Notice any differences in the offensive front? That's the difference. There are none. Tampa Bay had the same five starters together for the final 10 games last season, a streak the Bucs hadn't put together since 1979. Tampa Bay's consistency up front coincided with Rhett's late-season development and with a four-game winning streak. LT Paul Gruber, LG Charles McRae, C Tony Mayberry, RG Ian Beckles and RT Scott Dill surrendered a league-low two sacks in the final six games. As for depth, Tampa Bay is thin. Veteran Mike Sullivan is joined by youngsters Jim Pyne, Pete Pierson and draft pick Stephen Ingram.
DEFENSIVE LINE: The Bucs finished with a league-low 20 sacks in '94 and much of the blame rests with the defensive line. But the good news is that Tampa Bay got 12 of those sacks in the last six games. The emphasis is on the right side of the line, where RE Eric Curry and RT Warren Sapp need to perform like the million-dollar men they are. LE Chidi Ahanotu and LT Mark Wheeler are known more as run stoppers, but both have been valuable on occasion. The Bucs intend to keep six or seven DL shuttling in and out, so fans will see plenty of LT Brad Culpepper, RT Santana Dotson and LT Marc Spindler. Inexperience at end could be a problem, with only Keith Powe and Toddrick McIntosh to back up Ahanotu and Curry.
LINEBACKERS: In mid-April, linebacking help was a priority. But by the end of August, things improved considerably. For one, rookie RLB Derrick Brooks appears capable of handling the starting job. Second, LLB Lonnie Marts had a monster preseason, showing the kind of big-play flashes that were seldom seen a year ago. With MLB Hardy Nickerson healed from his preseason shoulder injury, the starting unit is solid. The downside is, with three rookies _ Brooks, Wardell Rouse and Darnell Stephens _ making the team, Tampa Bay is young. MLB Demetrius DuBose returns to play behind Nickerson.
SECONDARY: The Bucs are taking no chances. The four expected starters _ LCB Martin Mayhew, RCB Charles Dimry, SS Barney Bussey and FS Thomas Everett _ have a combined 35 NFL seasons of experience, and all are at least eight-year vets. As is the case with the defensive line, the Bucs need more big plays here. Tampa Bay had an NFL-low nine interceptions, with just seven by the secondary. SS John Lynch, FS Melvin Johnson and CBs Clifton Abraham and Mike McGruder provide depth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Bucs have some nice pieces in place. P Reggie Roby can be inconsistent, but his booming leg should boot the Bucs' play-it-safe offense out of trouble more than once. As for punt and kick coverage, one of Tampa Bay's strengths in '94, Kenny Gant and Curtis Buckley are kamikaze cover men. K Michael Husted had a solid preseason, especially with kickoffs. The question mark is free-agent return specialist Clarence Verdin, who made very little happen in August.
COACHING: Give Sam Wyche plenty of credit for keeping a sinking ship afloat late last year, turning a 2-9 start into a 4-1 finish. For his efforts, he received a bonus year in which to turn Tampa Bay's fortunes around. He has more weapons than ever at his disposal and a schedule that has a few breaks after an opening two-game road trip. How he handles his quarterback-in-training and how far the defense progresses remains the key questions.
_ DON BANKS