Bucs tailback Jerry Ellison is not kidding himself. Sure, he had four of the six biggest gains from scrimmage last season, but he knows the job belongs to someone else in the long run.
Ellison began workouts Monday at the University of Tampa as the club's starting tailback. He came to camp looking to carry the ball more than the two dozen or so times he did last year as a rookie, but now it's hard not to get carried away.
The reason is that Errict Rhett is nowhere to be found.
After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Rhett is holding out because he feels he deserves more than the 6-year contract averaging $2.35-million per season that the Bucs are thought to have offered.
Although the club said it is done negotiating, Rhett reportedly wants $3-million per year and a $5-million signing bonus. He is scheduled to earn $336,000 this year.
"I have a big appreciation for where I'm at," Ellison said Monday. "My first year, I just wanted to get my foot in the door and wanted for somebody to bring me into camp. I wasn't looking for no big money, I just wanted to be here. I'm glad I'm here now. It hasn't really hit me that I am playing in the NFL now."
For most of last year, it didn't dawn on the Bucs, either.
During the regular season, Rhett took about as many plays off as Cal Ripken. Ellison's number was called just 26 times, but he managed to average an eye-popping 8.4 yards per carry and score five touchdowns.
His 75-yard TD run in the final game against Detroit tied a club record held by James Wilder since '83. Rhett's longest career carry is 27 yards.
A free agent from Tennessee-Chattanooga who spent nearly all of the '94 season on the practice squad, Ellison was a longshot to earn a spot on the Bucs roster.
Now he wants to be known as somebody who's not just keeping the seat warm for Rhett.
"I just wanted to come in and establish myself with the new coaching staff," Ellison said. "As far as Errict's situation, I can't worry with that right now. I've just got to take care of Jerry Ellison.
"Last year I carried the ball, what, twenty-six times? It was kind of frustrating for me last year that I didn't get that many carries. Most backs, even backups to the top runner on other teams, get more carries than that. I wanted to come in and show them that I could carry the ball more, even backing up Rhett."
The Bucs would have you believe they are not wary of starting the season without Rhett.
In addition to Ellison, they have veteran LeRoy Thompson and rookie Mike Alstott.
"If this had happened to us last year, we'd have been in a little different situation," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "We would not be as cheery as we may be. But we're pretty happy with the backfield as it sits."
How long Rhett sits out is undetermined, but nobody is acting as if Rhett is missed. McKay refuses to discuss the holdout, and coaches mostly talk up the other guys.
"I think anybody can appreciate that guy who comes in unheralded and earns his way onto the roster and earns playing time," coach Tony Dungy said of Ellison. "And when he gets playing time, he produces. That's what you want to see. Jerry is going to be fine and I think our team has a lot of confidence in him."
Thompson, a six-year veteran who signed as a free agent, is expected to provide depth and experience after having spent playoff seasons with Pittsburgh, New England and Kansas City. Two years ago he caught 65 passes for the Patriots. With Rhett out, he could have a bigger role than he imagined.
"For the first time in my career, I was sitting behind Marcus Allen and wasn't an integral part of the football team," Thompson said. "I just wanted to get on the field and do things I've done my entire career. I know I can do that here."
Alstott is working exclusively at fullback, but Dungy expects that role to be expanded.
"He was the featured back at Purdue and capable of doing it," Dungy said.
But nobody stands to gain more _ yards or visibility _ than Ellison as a result of Rhett's holdout.
"Oh, man, it's changed a lot," Ellison said. "Right now, I have to grow up. I'm not a rookie. I've got a lot of people depending on me this year, a lot more than last year. So I've got a lot growing up to do."