TAMPA — Coaches are hesitant to offer praise early in training camp. So it is notable when Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles lauded Rakeem Nunez-Roches as the defense’s most improved player.
The defensive tackle, who played just 26 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last season, has made the coaching staff take notice. And the 27-year-old has an opportunity to earn more playing time this season with defensive tackle Beau Allen gone and the Bucs defensive line looking to bulk up in the middle.
“Right now, in a week and a half, he’s been the most improved player,” Bowles said. “I think he’s changed his upper body. He looks more stout, he looks quicker. He looks more explosive, he looks more powerful right now and he’s adapted to this scheme and he’s understanding things well.”
Nunez-Roches, a locker-room favorite among his teammates affectionately nicknamed “Nacho,” is one of the loudest players on the practice field. Last week, coach Bruce Arians anointed him the team’s top trash talker. Bowles said he definitely adds a spark to the defense.
“He’s taking advantage of the situation,” Bowles said. “He’s always the first one out stretching. He’s always the loudest one in practice on the field. He gets the other guys going. He’s been a joy to be around so he’s been great. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Bucs defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers also said Nunez-Roches has been the line’s most improved player, saying that putting on more weight — he played at 307 pounds last season — will help him play inside.
“The way we’re going to use Nacho this year, he had to bulk up some,” Rodgers said. “We had some changes in our line and where he fits with the pieces we got, he’s going to have to really take some of the load (and) share some of the load with Vita (Vea) on the inside. He needed to bulk up and he took the challenge. So far, he’s making some pretty good strides at practice.”
Defense takes charge
The highlight of Tuesday’s practice was a goal-line session that quickly intensified, especially when the Bucs defense stoned running back Ronald Jones on consecutive plays.
“It’s tough running the ball down there,” Arians said. “They did a great job of stuffing the run. They just need to do a better job on the pass.”
The Bucs return their entire front seven from a team that had the best rush defense in the league last season.
On Tuesday, the Bucs’ first-team offense fared better through the air, as Tom Brady hit Justin Watson along the left side, then completed two passes in the end zone to O.J. Howard.
Brady also decided to pull the ball and take it himself on a simulated third-down play from the 6, scrambling into the end zone untouched, then spinning the football on the ground.
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Brady likely would have taken a hit in a real game, but defenders held up in practice.
“Nobody was gonna touch him,” Arians said. “They know better. That was an easy one.”
Off day for vets
Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Chris Godwin received a veteran maintenance day off.
Rookie wide receiver Tyler Johnson remained out. The team’s fifth-round pick has struggled to stay on the field, returning briefly from a soft-tissue injury before getting sidelined again. He was wearing a sleeve on his right leg Tuesday.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.