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Abraham holding his own at corner

They don't jump around like the ones found in most rookie cornerbacks, but Donnie Abraham has a lot of nerve.

When you come to the NFL from one of those compass schools like East Tennessee State University, you are expected to get a little overwhelmed.

The throat becomes dry as drought, the feet feel as if they're stuck in sand and the jaw can take permanent residence on your chest.

And if you were raised in a place like Orangeburg, S.C., chances are you could buy a ticket to Tampa Stadium for everyone in town and still have plenty of seats left.

But instead of being star-struck, the Bucs' third-round pick has starred during the first week of training camp and already is being used with the first-team defense as an extra defensive back in passing situations.

"He's holding his own and seems to be a very mature guy. He's covered our guys in practice and the Jacksonville (practice) situation didn't seem to rattle him," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "Probably, the next step will be lights and the big crowd and everything. I think he's going to do fine and we felt that as we look at him proceeding the draft that he'd be a guy who could come in and handle everything that's thrown at him."

So far, Abraham has handled every pass thrown at him. Friday's workouts against the Jaguars converted more believers. Lining up against Pro Bowl receiver Andre Rison, Abraham won most of the battles and earned praise from coaches and teammates.

"He seems to keep his poise pretty well," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "He went up against Rison one-on-one right out of the shoot. We wanted that matchup just to see and he was pretty poised about it."

After producing a next-to-last 14 interceptions in the NFC last season, the Bucs were hoping to find a player like Abraham in the draft.

Starting cornerbacks Charles Dimry and Martin Mayhew are nine-year veterans and the Bucs lost depth in the secondary when they opted not to re-sign Tony Stargell and lost Mike McGruder to free agency.

But coaches didn't know whether Abraham could make the leap in competition from the Southern Conference to the NFL. How do you adjust to playing the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears when your biggest rivals were Appalachian St. and Marshall?

"I think there might be a question that some people might have about me coming from a small school," Abraham said. "But I'm out here just like every other guy working hard. I have no choice but to get better working with great guys like Martin and Charles and the rest of the secondary. All I can do is get better. I really don't think the small school has anything to do with it."

Abraham's story is more remarkable when you consider he didn't play football until his senior year in high school, and even then it took some prodding from his coach. His passion was basketball, though there's not a big market for 5-foot-10 guards in the NBA.

"Now that I think about it, I was kind of stupid back then," Abraham said. But nobody doubts Abraham's physical gifts to play in the NFL. A four-year starter at ETSU, he finished with 246 tackles and 15 interceptions. He also ran track and is among the club's fastest players, with a 4.28 in the 40-yard dash.

But after a week of training camp, Abraham has been around long enough to recognize the adjustments he'll have to make to cover the league's top-flight receivers.

"They're a lot bigger and faster," Abraham said. "They're aggressive in this league. You get a variety of receivers and you have to be on top of your game. As a young guy, it's a learning experience. The only way you can learn is to be out there and keep playing against the best."

While Abraham has been impressive in workouts, his next hurdle will be performing in games before large, sometimes hostile crowds.

"It depends on the rookie," linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "If the rookie is mature enough to step in and play football, then it's not a problem. If the guy is not ready to play, it's a problem.

"Donnie seems to be a guy who isn't fazed by anybody. He's stepped in there and done a great job in coverage."