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Don’t say the preseason is meaningless to these guys

Bucs quarterback Austin Allen (8) prepares to throw during practice Aug. 3. (CHRIS URSO | Times)
Tuesday 28 August 2018 18.02

TAMPA — Any visitor to the Bucs locker room will find the typical items: pads, helmets, stools, tape.

There's also a ping-pool table, loads of incredible athletic talent and perspective.

Reams of thought-provoking, dream-filled, lifelong perspective.

Free agent rookie quarterback Austin Allen found just that as he spoke with 15-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick a few days ago.

Allen, a two-year starter out of Arkansas, has often been the best quarterback on his team and one of the best athletes on the roster. Like so many of the Bucs' rookies and free-agent hopefuls, however, he now finds himself in a room with players who at the very least are his equal and in many cases simply better.

It's a daunting challenge to go from competing against the best players on campus to the best players in the world.

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"I was talking to Fitz about that yesterday," Allen said Monday. "We were saying every guy in here was a star on their football team and now we have guys who don't even get to play. It's just one those things. All you can do is keep your head down, try to learn the playbook as best as you can and when you do get that one opportunity, you have to run with it."

Allen's opportunity will come Thursday night when he likely will get all of the snaps under center when the Bucs host the Jaguars.

With the Bucs and Jaguars expected to bench most if not all of their starters, so many fans see the last preseason game as meaningless. Yet it's far from that for Allen and many of the teammates he's grown to know during offseason training activities and training camp.

"It certainly means a lot to them," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "When you look at what's going to happen next weekend, basically, using round numbers, 40 guys times 32 teams are going to get cut. That's a lot of good football players getting cut … guys that have probably always been starters.

"As we get closer to the cut, the reality of this league is and how this is a competition all along from 90 to 53, I think that really starts to sink in with the players."

Despite the long odds, every player says they show up prepared to give their all. The uncertainty of making the team, a totally new sensation for these high school and college standouts, is balanced by earnest practice efforts and hopeful assessments.

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Linebacker Riley Bullough knows the drill. He came to the Bucs as a free agent in 2017 out of Michigan State, earned a spot on the practice squad, then got promoted to the active roster, playing in the team's final three games.

Now it starts all over. No spot is guaranteed for the young and hungry who aren't big-time draft picks. Does he lay awake at night worrying about the possibilities?

"Not really," said Bullough, who hopes to get multiple snaps and develop a rhythm against Jacksonville. "You just gotta come in every day and do what you can to make the team. When it's all said and done, it's not up to you. You just hope that you came in every day and did your best. Really that's all you can ask for.

"I think I've put myself in a good position to make this team or another team."

Therein lies the key. Koetter said he stresses to the players that in the final week of the preseason, every team in the league assesses the performances of every player. He noted the Bucs "pounced" when the Saints put quarterback Ryan Griffin on waivers in 2015. Now, with the suspension of Jameis Winston, Griffin will be one play from starting in the team's first three games.

"If you look around the league, different teams have different injuries in different spots," Koetter said. "Maybe Team A is short of O-linemen. Team B might be short of corners or wide receivers. Pick your position. There are good football players that aren't going to make their teams that the GMs all across the league and their staffs are going to have their eyes on them."

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Allen, with a brother who's looking to hold a spot on the Rams roster, knows all too well that a good game may not guarantee a home in Tampa Bay, but could earn him a spot in the league. Meaningless? Don't tell that to him and the other guys longing to be in the NFL.

"I think a lot of guys in here are excited for this Thursday," Allen said. "We know it's kind of our one shot to make something happen.

"It means everything to us. It's a dream of ours to be here and we want to be here as long as we can. This last game means a lot. Maybe not outside these walls, but to the 65 guys in here who have something to prove, it means a lot."

Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow him @hoop4

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