TAMPA — The Bucs unveiled Vita Vea as their secret weapon on offense Sunday, adding the 6-foot-4, 347-pound nose tackle as an extra blocker in a goal-line package for three plays late in a 30-27 win over the Cardinals.
And on Peyton Barber’s winning 1-yard touchdown run — lining up on the left side of the line — Vea pushed back three Cardinals while helping open a path for Barber. In a Hulk-like two seconds, Vea shoved Terrell Suggs to his right and out of the play, then chipped linebacker Joe Walker to his left while flinging safety Budda Baker into the air over his right shoulder.
“That touchdown wasn’t as easy as it looked, even though Vita did knock down three guys,” coach Bruce Arians said. “I actually watched Vita’s high school running back tape (Monday), just in case. It’s pretty impressive.”
In his second pro season, Vea, 24, is coming into his own as a defensive force — in a grading system created by the statistics website Pro Football Focus, his 82.5 season grade ranks 12th among NFL interior linemen — and though he’s showing his ability to make an impact with his strength, he’s also displaying deft athleticism for a player his size.
“He’s a monster,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “He willed us in the end zone (against the Cardinals) — he and Peyton. It just shows the type of player he is to play probably 60-something snaps on defense and come over to the offensive side and help us get the ball in there.”
That high school football highlight tape to which Arians referred shows a 310-pound Vea during his senior year at Milpitas High, north of San Jose, Calif., making jump cuts, exploding through the line and outrunning defensive backs more than half his size.
Most of that film is from one game, a 244-yard, five-touchdown rushing performance — the majority of it in two quarters — in a 61-27 win over Homestead High. Vea split carries with running back Squally Canada, who went on to play at BYU, through his senior season, but Canada couldn’t play that game, so Vea took the rushing load. Vea ran for 578 yards that season, averaging 12.3 yards a carry and scoring 11 touchdowns.
“I guess the world knows how good (of) an athlete he is now,” Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “It’s something that we always knew. Vita’s a super athlete. Vita’s a big guy that can really move.”
At Milpitas, Vea played all over the field. At about 270 pounds, he was a standup outside linebacker as a freshman, and at one point, he talked coach Kelly King into letting him play quarterback out of a wildcat formation. He also played inside linebacker in order to steer opposing teams from the middle, and also was a down lineman, a running back and a tight end.
“When he was a freshman, he was running around learning the game a little bit,” King said. “But we could see a lot of great things we could do with him. He had some talent.
“We would throw him out there at wildcat, put him at quarterback or let him carry the ball. He could do it. He wasn’t just a plug running up the middle. He showed some moves. He could jump cut. He’s an athlete. We weren’t caught in a box by a guy’s size, so we were able to fit him out pretty good.”
King remembers one play during Vea’s senior season when a conference track champion on an opposing team scooped up a fumble at the 2-yard line and Vea caught up with him down the sideline, tackling him just beyond midfield.
“The look on that guy’s face, he was shocked that he got caught,” King said.
And much like Vea has made significant strides from his rookie season on defense, King said he did the same as a high school running back. Teams knew the only way to tackle Vea was to go for his legs, so he developed that jump-cut move to sidestep them.
“I think most of them were looking like, ‘Don’t run over me,’ ” King said. “Most guys tried to go at his legs, so that’s why he had to learn how to jump cut and use some balance. One guy couldn’t take him down up high. But that’s why he was such a force and just a dominant player because you had to double- and triple-team him, which is what teams have to do now.”
The Bucs used Vea — who was unavailable for comment Thursday — on offense against the Cardinals primarily because they are without top blocking tight end Antony Auclair for the rest of the season because of injury. They previously used offensive tackle Josh Wells as an extra blocker in their jumbo package.
Leftwich was more than impressed with what he has seen from Vea on offense.
“You watch the plays that he made in the three plays that he was in. That’s a football-aware guy,” Leftwich said. “He’s not even on the outside of the ball, and (to) have the wherewithal (with) what he did on that touchdown run is part of the reason why we have him in that situation.
“At the same time, it just says a lot about the guy (and) the player, how athletic most of these guys in this league are and what they’re able to do and are capable of doing.”
Asked if a play to throw the ball to Vea is in the works, Leftwich said, smiling, “We’ll see.”
King isn’t surprised how the Bucs are using Vea on offense.
“It doesn’t surprise me with anything he does,” King said.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.