TAMPA — Rookie linebacker Jack Cichy had practiced with the Bucs all spring, testing his surgically repaired right knee, but a big step came last week when he practiced for the first time without a brace.
"It was kind of tough," said Cichy, the team's sixth-round draft pick out of Wisconsin. "The first couple of days in pads, I was with the brace and I felt really good. I felt like I wasn't slowed down at all, was able to play fast. So when it came time to shed it, I had to take a step back and be sure."
Cichy, who missed his final season with the Badgers with a torn ACL in that knee, said he talked to his parents and girlfriend as he weighed whether to play with the protection of a brace or fully trust in his knee being strong again.
"It was a little bit of back and forth: How am I going to go about this?" Cichy said. "When I talked to people, I realized how far I've come, how much work I've put into the knee. It's ready. I had to shake that last monkey off my back."
The Bucs got a potential steal with Cichy, as they had a year before in getting LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith in the third round when he was coming off ACL surgery. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said he's been pleased to see the gradual progress in his recovery already.
"I think with a lot of injured players, part of coming back into full contact is just the confidence," Koetter said. "You've got bodies on the ground and you've got people flying at your feet. Jack definitely plays with a burst. He's a smart player. I think he's still adjusting to life getting back to full health."
Cichy said his first day without the brace, he felt fine but didn't have opportunities to be as physical as he wanted to be. The second day, football felt familiar and full speed again.
"It felt great. I had opportunities to get in the hole, to play downhill, and it felt great," he said.
The Bucs have solid depth at linebacker, so Cichy is still competing for a roster spot. There's young competition with NFL experience, in veteran Cameron Lynch, third-year pro Devante Bond, second-year Riley Bullough and former USF star Nigel Harris, with only two of the five likely making the cut.
"Cichy has done a very nice job," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said last week. "I was very pleased to see that he didn't wear a knee brace, his first day. That's a positive step to go through mentally."
Cichy has dealt with major injuries before — he missed seven games in 2016 with a torn pectoral muscle, so the extended absence put football in jeopardy, but also gave him even more of a gratitude for being healthy now.
"We broke the huddle and I'm running over to catch a couple on the JUGS machine, and I was looking down at my feet," he said. "I'm running. I've got cleats on, pads on. That was a moment where I was able to step back, appreciate how far I've come and where I'm at now, really enjoying the ride."
Cichy is cross-training at middle and strongside linebacker and working on all four units on special teams, something that could help him land a roster spot in September. Playing in the preseason, starting with Thursday's opener in Miami, will be a major step, both in his recovery and showing coaches how well he can translate his work in practice to the playing field.
"Huge," he said. "I'm going to play as confident as I know I can, to play 100 miles an hour. It's going to be different, getting back out on a game field. I have to roll with the punches. After every play, good or bad, I'm not going to be able to get with my coaches. It's play the next play, one play at a time, but that's something my coaches have really hit the nail on the head with. I think that's something I'll try to apply."