Ronald Jones highlights the coming attractions as Bucs’ preseason kicks off at Miami

Bucs rookie Ronald Jones, shown in practice Thursday, adds a big-play ability the Bucs have lacked. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Bucs rookie Ronald Jones, shown in practice Thursday, adds a big-play ability the Bucs have lacked. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published August 8
Updated August 9

TAMPA – The Bucs preseason should prove to be more entertaining than embarrassing, even with the awkward job-sharing arrangement at quarterback between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston, who awaits his three-game suspension.

Fitzwinston will get much of the attention, but the Bucs preseason opener at Miami Thursday will serve as an interesting preview of some coming attractions.

Whether you can't wait to see pupil-popping running back Ronald Jones, redhead center Ryan Jensen, the rebuilt defensive line or (Next!) place-kicker Chandler Catanzaro, there's something new for every Tampa Bay fan.

Here's a viewer's guide of who to watch for in the first episode.

Get your popcorn ready.

JONESING FOR A RUNNING BACK: Tight end O.J. Howard had some good advice for rookies playing in their first NFL preseason game.

"As young guys, I would say be prepared for things to go different from practice,'' Howard said. "Seeing a new defense, playing against new opponents is going to be different. And when things go bad, just continue to play because it's going to happen. Just play fast on every play, even if you mess up. Play fast.''

Perhaps no rookie will play faster than running back Ronald Jones. The second-round pick from Southern Cal is known for his explosive, long runs. The Bucs didn't have many of those last season, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry as a team.

"I'm anxious to get out there,'' Jones said. "I don't know how much or what plays I'm going to get, but, you know, I know I'm going to be playing, so every time I'm out there, try to make an impact. Just try to stand out.

"Don't try to take one to the crib every play. Just take the 5-, 8-, 10-yard gains, and eventually you're going to bust one.''

Jones has had some good days and bad days in training camp. He's struggled in pass protection. Having only caught 32 passes in three years at USC, his hands need to become softer.

"They've improved since he's been here,'' running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "They didn't throw him a lot of balls at USC. But his hands have improved, and if he keeps on improving, that speed is something else.''

Peyton Barber will likely get the start at running back. "I can definitely see us as a one-two punch just as the Saints do it with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara,'' he said.

THE LINE DANCE: Jensen's career highlight may be blasting Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso after his vicious hit on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco last November. The Bucs felt they needed that kind of attitude on their offensive line.

Jensen's arrival means Ali Marpet will make his debut at left guard and should work well with left tackle Donovan Smith. But the right side of the Bucs starting offensive line has been hit hard by injuries. Right tackle Demar Dotson isn't expected to play as he slowly recovers from two knee surgeries. Caleb Benenoch returned to practice Tuesday and could start at right guard or right tackle. Look for unproven players such as tackle Brad Seaton and rookie tackle Cole Boozer to get some playing time with the first or second offensive line.

Alonso still plays for the Dolphins, so he'll be looking out for Jensen.

RUSH HOUR: Gerald McCoy is no longer a solo act. He's got what he calls his Super Friends, and several will make their Bucs debut Thursday: Jason Pierre-Paul, Beau Allen and Vinny Curry have been dominant in practice. (Mitch Unrein had an undisclosed injury Monday). Then there's the comeback attempt by Noah Spence, who has added nearly 30 pounds of muscle since his second shoulder surgery a year ago.

Unfortunately, the Bucs may not see first-round pick Vita Vea until the start of the regular season. The Washington star is recovering from a calf injury.

The Bucs were last in total defense and sacks with 22 a year ago. The starters won't be in Thursday's game very long, but first impressions are important, and the new-look defensive line will try to start fast in this game.

"Between all the additions, we've got three Super Bowl champions and six Super Bowl appearances,'' McCoy said. That includes three appearances by new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who coached so hard he lost his voice last week.

DAVIS, STEWART AND WHITEHEAD: Sounds like a law firm, but it's the trio of rookie defensive backs making their NFL debut. Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart have flashed as cornerbacks in practice. At 6-1, Davis gives the Bucs length, and Stewart has been a playmaker rarely out of position with the versatility to also play inside. The Bucs had 13 INTs a year ago, tying for 15th in the NFL. We'll begin to see if the Bucs drafted any ballhawks.

KICK START: Matt Bryant is 43 and hasn't kicked for the Bucs since he was cut and eventually signed by the Falcons in 2009, where he still thrives as a Pro Bowl player.

So it's been nearly a decade since the Bucs' kicking situation was settled. The latest hope is the right leg of Chandler Catanzaro, who signed a three-year, $9.75-million contract with the Bucs in March.

Here's how good Catanzaro has been in training camp. Reporters rarely chart his field goal attempts in practice because he almost never misses. It's definitely not like the cringe-worthy days of Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk.

Catanzaro also has a stronger leg and should be able to consistently kick the ball through the end zone for touchbacks. The Bucs released kicker Trevor Moore to sign former Giants tackle Jerron Jones, so Catanzaro will be busy Thursday night. A good debut will help coach Dirk Koetter and GM Jason Licht sleep better.

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