TAMPA — Demar Dotson said there are times he remains in awe of how he actually got here.
Dotson, 27, the Bucs right tackle, started playing football just five years ago, his senior season at Southern Miss. That's when the 6-foot-9, 315-pound power forward began his unlikely path to an NFL career with an experiment of playing defensive line for the Golden Eagles.
Now Dotson is an incumbent starter and millionaire, having signed a four-year, $7.5 million extension this offseason.
"I look back at where I came from, from a basketball player who is now a starting right tackle, I'm amazed," Dotson said.
"Because so many guys don't get a shot, and here I am a basketball player like me, God gave me the opportunity. I value every day, stay humble and work because just like God gave me this opportunity, I can lose it any day."
Dotson has seen it firsthand. After all, he beat out six-year starter Jeremy Trueblood early last season, starting 15 games. And even though Dotson was rewarded for his breakout season with a new contract, he wasn't guaranteed his spot as the Bucs acquired right tackle Gabe Carimi in June.
Carimi is everything Dotson is not: a first-round pick with a pedigree, having won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman as a senior at Wisconsin.
But Dotson's strong training camp has given him the edge over Carimi, who is still learning the system and working his way back from a knee injury. On Saturday, Bucs coach Greg Schiano said Dotson "is our starting right tackle," and believes while the former football novice isn't a finished product, he has a bright future.
"He's just made a steady improvement," Schiano said. "I think we said it at the end of the year: If he continues to make the improvement at the rate that he did the first four years, this guy is going to be special. He's not there yet, but he's getting better and better."
The Bucs took just a small gamble on Dotson, signing him as an undrafted free agent in 2009. From the moment he stepped on the field, they were intrigued by his length and strength, noticing his athleticism and foot work considering his size. Dotson's work ethic and willingness to learn helped him through initial growing pains.
"When I first got here, I thought I was way over my head," Dotson said. "When I walked in here and I never played the position before, guys were way, way much better than I was. I just had to keep my faith."
Dotson appreciated the Bucs' patience, bringing him along slowly. He played on special teams his rookie year and didn't start until 2011. Left tackle Donald Penn, a Pro Bowl pick in 2010, has been impressed, noting how much extra — and early — work Dotson has put in. Penn believes Dotson has been one of the biggest bright spots of camp.
"He made such a big jump, even from last year to this year," Penn said. "His knowledge of football, his IQ of football is off the roof now compared to when he first came in. I'm proud of that dude. He's getting better and better."
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Dotson still needs to improve his run blocking, for which Carimi might be better suited. Dotson's strength and length are advantages in pass protecting. But he has worked on becoming a more versatile lineman with his goal of being the best right tackle in football.
Schiano said Friday's 25-21 loss to the Patriots wasn't Dotson's best game but that was partly due to he's "ailing a little bit" with a minor leg issue and didn't take away from his body of work.
"He's performed very well," Schiano said. "I think Demar is going to be really solid."
Penn went a step further: "He's going to have a great year. I love watching him grow."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.