TAMPA — Bobby Rainey is never short on confidence, so when you ask him if he's prepared to take over as the Bucs' return specialist, well, of course he is.
"Whenever my number's called, I'm going to be ready," said Rainey, who has handled returns in practice this week since the Bucs released Marcus Thigpen on Monday. "Shoot, that doesn't change my approach. It gives me an opportunity to showcase what I can do back there on punt returns if my number is called."
The return game has been a position of change for the Bucs. Rookie Solomon Patton handled punts and kickoffs for the first six games, then was replaced by Trindon Holliday, who lasted one game before he was cut after suffering a hamstring injury. Thigpen had the job for four games, a stretch that included a 53-yard punt return, but after a second muffed kick in as many weeks, he was let go.
Coach Lovie Smith, always hesitant to share depth-chart insights and surrender even a tiny strategic advantage to his opponents, hasn't named a starter on returns for Sunday against the Bengals. Another backup running back, Mike James, has been the top backup on kickoff returns. Rainey got the reps in practice Friday, however, and has been listed as the top backup on punts all season.
"I feel pretty confident with who we're going to put out there," Smith said coyly Friday. "(Rainey) has been doing that, and this week he was back fielding some punts, doing what he's been doing throughout. At every position we have someone that we feel comfortable starting, and we have a backup at every position."
Rainey is the team's leading rusher with 395 yards and a solid 4.2-yards-per-carry average, but he has seen his offensive role diminish with starter Doug Martin and rookie Charles Sims healthy. He now could take on a more high-profile role on special teams.
Compared with punt returns, handling kickoffs is simple, he said. "Punt return is the hardest special-teams thing you can do," he said. "Kickoff return is easy. You have enough time."
Rainey has had extensive work on returns in the preseason. Last year with the Ravens he had a 58-yard kickoff return against the Bucs and a 60-yard return later in preseason. He had a 92-yard return as a freshman at Western Kentucky in 2008. Now he is in position to be the Bucs' fourth returner.
Cincinnati's punt return coverage is especially strong. The Bengals haven't allowed a punt return longer than 11 yards all season, the lowest mark in the NFL. They have allowed just 93 total yards on punt returns all year.
The Bengals are more vulnerable on kickoffs. They rank seventh worst, with opponents averaging 25.9 yards per return.
Rainey has the next shot to find a spark on special teams for the Bucs.
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.