TAMPA — Bucs rookies hit the field at the Advent Health Training Center for their first NFL training camp practice on Monday, but their education into becoming successful professionals began over two months ago.
While participating in rookie minicamp and full-squad organized team activities, the Bucs’ 26-player rookie class also went through the Bucs rookie academy, a six-week crash course that focuses on finding fast professional success on and off the field.
The program is run by former NFL offensive lineman Duke Preston, the Bucs’ director of player development, and player engagement coordinator Justus Jones. It mostly takes place in a classroom, but has very little to do about X’s-and-O’s.
“Ultimately, our goal is to help them lead from the bottom and mature faster as professionals in order to move us forward as a team and an organization,” Preston said. “When you’ve got rookies that you’re counting on and they go out and contribute, it makes the whole team better. So the faster we can get them up to speed in understanding what the standard requires as professionals different to college athletes, the better off we all are.”
The Bucs are leaning heavily on their rookie class, especially on defensive. First-round pick Devin White will be counted on to assume an immediate leadership role and establish himself as a playmaker as one of the team’s starting middle linebacker. Rookie defensive backs Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards are tasked with improving a secondary that ranked 26th in passing yards allowed.
"I think we're just trying to be that team that changes it around," White said. "Every year, you've got a new set of rookies come in and it's all about the mindset they have."
The rookie academy met five times a week, touching on a variety of issues from establishing their own professional identities and brands — the underlying theme there is “earn, protect and grow,” Preston said — while addressing off-field issues like domestic violence, sexual assault and driving under the influence. They went through lessons on money management and social scenarios to help them with etiquette and networking. Guest speakers ranged from NFL Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis to Duke football player turned entrepreneur Zach Maurides.
The rookies visited places throughout the area, from MacDill Air Force Base to a Rays game at Tropicana Field, where White threw out the first pitch. They participated in a cooking class, and visited the Tampa Police Department Citizens Academy, where they simulated how a routine traffic stop can force an officer to make life-or-death decisions in an instant.
“As first when I heard the vets got to leave and go on vacation, I was kind of thrown,” White said. “I was like, why do we have to stay here? But the stuff that Duke and Justus have got us doing, it’s really good. It kind of gives us time to really feel welcome and feel like this is a great place to be.”
For the rookies, going through the program has formed a unique bond.
"It's kind of a brotherhood," Murphy-Bunting said. "We're trying to get established early. We're trying to get it to the point where we can tolerate each other for a long time and have fun with each other. That's what it's all about at the end of the day, having fun and competing. I feel like we've built a strong relationship in the weeks we've been here, and it's only going to get stronger from here. It's going to translate to the field."
Edwards compared the experience to being a freshman in college.
“We’re representing our draft class, doing different activities, rookie meetings, lifting with each other, working out with each other,” he said. “We’re definitely built a great bond with each other, developed some team chemistry. It’s important. You need chemistry off the field to have that chemistry on the field.”
That's a main goal of the program, Preston said.
"One of the negative feedbacks we always get from these guys is that it's too long," Preston said. "There are too many sessions, but that's actually one of my goals is to make it long. You don't form any bonds or have a genuine care for the guy next to you if you don't spend some time next to him and have some shared experiences."
Preston admits that learning how to manage money or present yourself at a social event won’t help covering a receiver in man coverage, but that the detailed-oriented approach being taught does carry over onto the field. And while Preston and Jones, a former receiver at Bowling Green, play a different role than, say, a position coach, they can both relate to the challenges football possesses on and off the field.
And he added that this year’s rookie class meshed well, and possesses “the potential to be a special class.” Some of that promise has to do with White, who quickly emerged as the leader of the group as anticipated
“With this group, Devin is a guy who has a magnetic way about him,” Preston said. “He’s someone that other guys look to and typically, your rookie class takes on some of the characteristics of whoever your first round pick is. If that guy’s good and he goes about his business the right way, a lot of those guys usually follow suit. That’s not always the case but it’s been part of my experience. We’ve got a bunch of guys in that group that we’re going to need a lot out of to get to where we want to go.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.