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Do-it-all Denson eager to play

Bring all your eyes to Raymond James Stadium. We have lots to ogle. Meaningless exhibition? Not!

We'll see if sixth-year Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer, a pilot who can't seem to escape turbulent skies, outslicks Tim Couch, a gifted little shaver in his second night of work with Cleveland's reborn Browns.

Story lines abound.

Is a slimmer Warren Sapp better? Is there now enough catch/stretch among Bucs pass receivers to frighten an enemy? What manner of stud, this Booger McFarland?

Don't let your Saturday night eyeballs go bloodshot before checking Autry Denson, a kid from Notre Dame wearing Tampa Bay jersey No. 23 amid the glut of an 84-man August roster.

Rich man, poor man Hot potato Couch is grossing $7-million plus as a pro football first-grader. Denson will scrap for rookie life for about $150,000, close to NFL minimum wage.

Four months ago, after the rebaked Brownies made Kentucky thoroughbred Couch the No. 1 selection in the college draft, there would be 231 other picks before the Bucs splurged their seventh-round choice on Denson.

"I was at school, watching the draft on TV," Denson said. "My mother had come up to Notre Dame to share the moment. We waited. We wondered. Experts had said I was likely to go in the second round; third at the latest. But the seventh? Very shocking."

Despite his N.D. bio.

No place matches the NCAA thump of Notre Dame. On the holy football grounds of Gipp, Rockne, Lujack, Leahy, Hornung, Parseghian, Montana and Touchdown Jesus, none of those icons rushed for more career yards than the 4,318 of Autry Lamont Denson. Nary a Four Horseman was close.

So why seventh round?

Autry got hammered by the NFL's stopwatch mentality. Tailbacks are expected to clock a blurring 4.4 seconds in 40-yard exams, a la Warrick Dunn or Lawrence Phillips. Denson was closer to 4.6.

"Never, when I've put on football pads, has speed been a problem," said the Notre Dame fellow. "I'm not a track man. I'm not 6-4 or 220 pounds, but I am a football player.

"I've got to prove that again in the NFL. I will. Tampa Bay got a steal."

Does he feel like a long shot? "Not at all."

Denson's words were soaked with confidence, not arrogance. He's smart. Self-assured. Not cocky. "My biggest attributes are my Christian faith and my mom," Autry said, sitting in his training camp dorm room.

"Mom is a registered nurse who raised me and two sisters in a one-parent household. She and our father divorced when I was in grade school. Her discipline was always evident.

"I didn't have to watch TV in search of a role model. I had a great one right there in our house. Mom's teachings were tough and fabulous. In our family, failure has never been an option."

Janice Denson Franklin's genes are deep in competitive zeal. "Back in Little League football, when I would break loose on a touchdown run," Denson recalled, "I would always glance over and see Mom racing down the sideline alongside me. By high school, she had become a little more restrained." Earlier this year, Janice remarried. She will be at Ray-J tonight.

Already, with the Bucs, the 233rd pick has impressed. "Very coachable," said special-teams boss Joe Marciano. "My secret weapon." Denson returned a kickoff 46 yards in last weekend's scrimmage against the Dolphins. He caught four passes. Autry is eager to run the football against Cleveland.

Marciano's kick squads, since last season, have lost dependable veterans Tony Bouie, Jerry Ellison and Robb Thomas. Victims of salary-cap quirks. Denson's opportunity is obvious.

"Versatility is key for me," Autry said. "Back at Notre Dame, it upset me when Coach (Lou) Holtz told me running back should not be my only position.

"He made me play a little at wide receiver. Some at cornerback. Coach Holtz branded me his "ultra back.' I'm now really thankful. He had a great idea. Special teams is so essential to an NFL rookie trying to make quick impact."

Especially the 233rd pick.

Denson grew up in Fort Lauderdale. He starred at Nova High School, located across a street from the Miami Dolphins. Autry was never their fan.

"Very young, I took to the unique attitude of the Oakland Raiders," he said. "I had my little black Raiders jacket.

"It hurt when my Raiders moved to L.A., where they never belonged. It's good they went back to Oakland. I always loved their swagger."

Autry's collegiate possibilities were bountiful. He had football skills as well as excellent grades. Denson was Irish-romanced into bypassing the Florida football power triumvirate of FSU-UM-UF.

"It's true, what you hear about Notre Dame," said Janice's son. "First time you walk onto the campus, it can grab you. All the tradition. For me, it was the right blend of athletics and academics." Before reporting to the Bucs, he received an N.D. degree in management information systems.

Impressive body and mind.

"I've already learned a lot from Warrick (Dunn) and Mike (Alstott)," Autry said. "Just watching how they carry themselves. How to be a professional." Denson seems unworried by coach Tony Dungy's looming cutdowns, to pare 84 camp names to 47 actives when the season begins in September.

In young Autry's life, with Janice supplying a motherly load of pushes and passions, plus some sideline speed of her own, "failure has never been an option."

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