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RECEIVERS MAKE THEIR FINAL CATCHES, CASES

With three backup spots up for grabs, most candidates find a way to stand out.

It was a night for Bucs wide receivers not named Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton to show their stuff, a final exhibition game to jockey for spots on the depth chart.

The battle for the third, fourth and fifth wideout slots was ended by no means conclusively Friday in a 27-20 loss to Houston, but a handful of receivers made their bids with impressive moments.

Tops on the list was third-year Buc Brian Clark, who finished with four catches for 70 yards. Cortez Hankton contributed one of the game's offensive highlights, a 23-yard touchdown reception from rookie quarterback Josh Freeman late in the first half. Rookie Sammy Stroughter notched only one catch for 6 yards, but it was a noteworthy grab over the middle in traffic on third and 6 that produced a first down.

And though Maurice Stovall had only one catch for 4 yards - before appearing to jam a finger on a pass beyond his grasp - he entered the game on solid ground after a strong camp, highlighted by his big game last week against Miami (six catches for 73 yards).

"It's all about lasting impressions," said Clark, a former Chamberlain High standout. "People have a funny way of remembering the last thing that they see.

"I wouldn't give myself too many kudos, because I definitely still have some work to do. But I feel good, because I put everything that I have on the field. I'm a man; I'll make mistakes. But I gave it everything I had."

Clark got flagged for one holding penalty and fumbled a punt. But he also started the game off with an excellent hustle play, helping force a fumble when Freeman was intercepted on Tampa Bay's first offensive play. That gave the Bucs the ball back and set the stage for Mike Nugent's 20-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.

"He had some smart plays out there," coach Raheem Morris said.

Hankton also made a bid to catch his coaches' attention, finishing with two first-half catches for 32 yards and the touchdown, in which he shook off a defender to get into the end zone. The question for Hankton was whether it was too little to late to make a difference. Now comes the difficult waiting game for the six-year pro.

"There's nothing that you really do," he said. "Time waits for no man. You just have to wait and see."

Stroughter, who has turned many heads during training camp, was pleased he had a chance to make a contribution, even if his numbers were modest.

"I'm feeling really good," he said. "It's all about understanding your scheme and your role. I don't care about how many balls I catch or anything. I just try to get better each and every day.

"I had a great chance with that one catch. With Ike (Hilliard) leaving, that's the kind of thing he did on third down. So I was glad to make that play. But there's still a bunch of room for improvement."

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