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Neal looks for niche in Bucs' backfield

Lunchtime in the Bucs' locker room. Lorenzo Neal was ambling, searching for a spot to enjoy his full plate of food. His corner locker was blocked by reporters and camera operators, who focused on familiar media targets such as John Lynch and Mike Alstott.

Too crowded.

How fitting.

There's not much room in the backfield for Neal, a sixth-year fullback acquired in an off-season trade with the New York Jets. That's the territory of Alstott and Warrick Dunn, both Pro Bowl players.

"It's their team," said Neal, a 5-foot-10, 240-pounder. "You'd have to be silly not to know that."

Although Neal might be crowded out of playing time and yardage, he's expected to fill a much-needed role. Neal is a crunching blocker. That will allow Alstott to become less of a war horse and occasionally more of a dual tailback with Dunn.

A broken wrist that required off-season surgery and a deep thigh bruise limited Alstott's late-season production. Patrick Hape, also a tight end, was the team's only other true fullback.

"I'm glad to have him (Neal) around," Alstott said. "It will take some blocks off my shoulders. And if something happens, if somebody goes down, he can carry the load. It's a big addition to our running game."

"And I'll tell you another thing," said quarterback Trent Dilfer, who played with Neal at Fresno State, "people forget that he's also a great runner. He's every bit as good a runner as he is a blocker."

In the NFL, though, his running opportunities have been limited. The career totals: 87 carries, 354 yards.

"I started out pretty good, though," he said.

A fourth-round selection by New Orleans in 1993, he gained 86 and 89 yards (including a 74-yard touchdown run) in his first two games. Then he broke his ankle, ending his season. In the next three seasons with New Orleans, and last year with the Jets, he was primarily a blocker.

What might have been?

"I don't think about it," Neal said. "In college, yeah, I was a 1,000-yard rusher. But now my responsibilities are different. I accept that.

"Hey, I'm elated to be in Tampa. Absolutely elated. This is a winning team, an up-and-coming team. I'm another piece of the puzzle, hopefully, and I'll be happy with that. I think I have enough perspective to understand what I can contribute. I've matured a lot since I've come into the league."

In fact, Neal said his attitude reversed after a 1994 nightclub incident in New Orleans. Neal and fellow Saints running back Mario Bates were out together. They began arguing over playing time and performance. Neal punched Bates, breaking his jaw and putting him on the injured-reserve list.

"I am so sorry that ever happened," Neal said. "I knew then that I had a lot of growing up to do. And I've grown a lot since those days.

"I think Mario and I have put that behind us. We still talk. It's a situation I have to live with. I'm just glad that man can be like God because God does forgive you. I have moved on."

To an often-anonymous existence, but maybe one that fits his personality. At Fresno State, his other sport was wrestling. Neal was a Western Athletic Conference heavyweight champion. While participating in the Japan Bowl, he defeated a sumo wrestler in an exhibition match.

"He's a strong, grinding kind of guy," Bucs running backs coach Tony Nathan said. "He gives us options. He realizes we have talent in our backfield and he'll do whatever he can to produce when called upon. That's a selfless attitude, but it's one that always makes a big difference."