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Can Bucs guard Aaron Stinnie go from healthy scratch to heady starter?

Limited to 30 snaps all season, Stinnie makes his NFL starting debut Sunday in New Orleans.
Bucs offensive guard Aaron Stinnie (64) has appeared in eight games (for 32 total snaps) since arriving in Tampa Bay two Novembers ago.
Bucs offensive guard Aaron Stinnie (64) has appeared in eight games (for 32 total snaps) since arriving in Tampa Bay two Novembers ago. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 15, 2021|Updated Jan. 16, 2021

If nothing else, Aaron Stinnie won’t be a Duke in the headlights Sunday evening in the Bucs’ division playoff game against the Saints. Tampa Bay’s new starting right guard has played in a national championship game.

Okay, it was in Division I-AA four years ago, and the Dukes of James Madison topped Youngstown State 28-14 before a crowd of 14,423 in Frisco, Texas.

That is a far larger audience (roughly 3,000) than the one scheduled to be allowed inside the Superdome for Sunday’s game. At this stage, the Bucs must go with the silver linings — and substitutes — they have available.

“It’s a tough role to take over at this point in the year,” quarterback Tom Brady said, “but we’re going to do the best we can do.”

A 26-year-old undrafted free agent who has appeared in 12 NFL games but never started, Stinnie is being tossed into the proverbial playoff cauldron out of necessity. Alex Cappa, who has 30 starts over the past two seasons, fractured an ankle in last weekend’s wild-card win against Washington.

His replacement that night, 33-year-old Palm Harbor University alumnus Ted Larsen, surrendered two sacks. Stinnie was a healthy scratch.

Now Stinnie is attempting the transition from inactive to indispensable, commissioned with trying to stave off one of football’s premier defensive fronts in his first NFL start. In the process, he will become Tampa Bay’s latest interior behemoth borne of a program well outside the Power Five stratosphere.

Left guard Ali Marpet (Division III Hobart), center Ryan Jensen (Division II Colorado State-Pueblo) and Cappa (Division II Humboldt State) also took the small-school route to the NFL.

“It’s like mixed emotions when that happens because ‘Capps,’ that’s my homeboy,” Stinnie said. “Hate to see him go down, but I want to be able to go out there and do him proud. So definitely excited for the first start to be able to go out there and do what I can. … I want to help put my hand in the pile and fill in.”

Raised in Charlottesville, Va., Stinnie (6 feet 3, 312 pounds) played two years of high school football before arriving at James Madison. The son of former 6-8 Virginia Commonwealth forward Phil Stinnie, a Knicks third-round draft pick in 1988, he gravitated toward basketball as a youngster but was encouraged by his father to give football a try.

He was a natural. The spring before his redshirt sophomore season with the Dukes, he transitioned from defensive tackle to the offensive line, then started the final 42 games of his college career at left tackle.

As a fourth-year junior in 2016, he helped lead the Dukes to a 14-1 record and the national title. The following year, he earned first-team I-AA All-America honors as James Madison again reached the title game.

“He’s an athletic guy; he’s strong,” Jensen said. “He reminds, I guess, a little bit of Ali. Same kind of body, same kind of build.”

But wholly different resume.

Related: Drew Brees' advantage over Tom Brady? Longevity trumps brevity.

Marpet flattened Gerald McCoy during his first padded practice as a Buc in 2015, earning a starting job out of the gate. Stinnie signed with the Titans in 2018, made the opening-day roster and appeared in four games over the next 19 months.

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He was claimed off waivers by the Bucs two Novembers ago and has appeared in eight games for 32 total snaps since arriving in Tampa Bay. A wealth of his experience, he said, has been via “mental reps,” picking the cerebrums of Marpet and Cappa.

“It’s insane the amount of knowledge and technique that I’ve been able to learn from them, just different things that can arise here and there in the game, and just in practice,” Stinnie said. “So it’s been awesome to be able to learn from them.”

New Orleans had the NFL’s fifth-ranked scoring defense (average 21.1 points per game allowed) and ranked eighth with 45 sacks in the regular season. Tackle Sheldon Rankins, who likely will line up opposite Stinnie for most of Sunday’s game, had a sack and two hits of Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in Sunday’s 21-9 playoff win.

“(Losing Cappa) was tough for me,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “Just having a guy that gives you everything and to lose a guy like that, that’s tough. But that is football, but we believe in Stinnie. I believe he’ll be ready to roll. He works his tail off every day. He’s a physical guy, so we’ll see.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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