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Bucs have Lovie affair with Winston

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The Sports Xchange

TAMPA — Quarterback Jameis Winston had his share of skeptics and detractors entering the NFL.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith refused to listen to any of them.

“There were the naysayers who didn’t like him,” Smith said. “I just know when I went in, I liked him the first time I met him. I thought Jameis was exactly what we were looking for.

“The more you talked to him, the more he confirmed it.”

After going 2-14 in his first season with the Buccaneers, Smith feels fortunate to be starting the season with a young, franchise quarterback who was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

After watching Winston lose only one game in two seasons at Florida State, it was an easy sell to Smith.

“To me, a quarterback has got to be able to throw the ball,” Smith said. “And if he’s a heck of a leader, too? His teammates believe with him in charge, we’re going to be OK. We have a chance to win.”

Winston had an up-and-down preseason in which he was sacked seven times, completed 48.9 percent of his passes, did not throw a touchdown pass (he ran for two scores) and had two interceptions in about a game and a half of playing time.

It will be the battle of rookie quarterbacks when Winston and the Bucs host the Tennessee Titans and No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota Sunday at 4:25 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium.

If the preseason proved anything, it’s that Smith and general manager Jason Licht were determined to continue to turn over the Bucs’ roster. The team certainly got younger.

The Buccaneers will start 2015 with six rookies and four others who have never played in a regular-season NFL game. In all, the Bucs had 17 players who have played in 10 or fewer career NFL games.

The Bucs are trying to thread the needle a bit this season.

In addition to having a rookie quarterback, they will have two rookie offensive linemen protecting Winston — left tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet from Division III Hobart College.

In addition, right tackle Demar Dotson was placed on injured Reserve, designated for return because of an MCL sprain.

Smith will rely heavily on offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to protect his offensive line with strategic play-calling. Running the football with Doug Martin, who is back in his rookie form, will be the key.

“We feel good about it,” Smith said. “When we say good about it, you look at the whole body of work. I’ve seen the line, I’ve seen young players take their first snap, seen them get better and better. I’ve seen them put in situations that will help them play better football during the course of the year — some positive, some negative. We feel good. We have a very good game on record where we saw what we could be.

“Now it’s about taking the next step. I think this weekend is important for guys. If you look at the guys that we are going to go to bat with next week, especially some of our younger players, they’re pretty much put in a college season, you could say right now with the amount of reps they’ve gotten. I think it’s good to take a step back, refresh your mind and your body and get ready to go. You’ve made it to this point, now it’s on. Yes, we feel good about our offensive line.”

Defensively, there are some other big changes.

Smith will handle the defensive play-calling, taking it away from defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier after the team finished 25th in the NFL.

The Bucs haven’t done much to improve the defensive line around three-time Pro-Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

The starting defensive ends will be George Johnson, who was acquired in a trade with the Lions, and Jacquies Smith, who had 6.5 sacks in eight starts last season but missed most of the preseason because of a shoulder injury.

The Bucs had to put defensive end Larry English (knee) on injured reserve and defensive end T.J. Fatinikun also is hurt.

“Yes, it is concerning,” Smith said. “Some years you have certain positions that are hit a little bit more with injuries. We have especially, of course, at the defensive end position. Hopefully we can get a few guys back soon. We feel like that will be the case. For us, that is why this weekend is so important when you have injuries like that.

“We are first up. We are the first batter. We just have to be ready. I feel like we know the group. We added (Jacquies) Smith last year at this time. You look at what we are able to do sometimes at the end. We found our kicker, we found our punter the last week before the season. We are going to hope that that momentum continues.”

The Bucs, however, are improved, especially at middle linebacker with rookie Kwon Alexander. The fourth-round pick from LSU won the job over veteran Bruce Carter. Alexander can run and hit, almost on par with All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David.

Among the young players in important roles includes kicker Kyle Brindza, a rookie acquired from the Lions in a trade for tight end Tim Wright, and punter Jacob Schum, who will make his first appearance in a regular-season game but is in his third stint with the Bucs.

Smith knows the Bucs need to start the season fast. He studied Mariota before the draft and believes he and Winston will both be successful as rookies.

Mariota adds an element of speed and running ability that could cause problems for the Bucs.

“I think just in general any good quarterback poses problems and I think he is a good quarterback,” Smith said. “He’s done a good job throwing the ball in the preseason. Of course his college video speaks for itself.

“Where he is different is he’s mobile and he can hurt you with his feet. That’s a concern, but it’s a concern any time you play a mobile quarterback like that. That’s why we need to just keep our eyes, which we do most of the time as a general rule. (We) put as many good athletes on the field that play hard, and we feel like we’ll be OK against anybody we play.”

–The Bucs used their first waiver claim position to add five players Sunday. Tampa Bay added Saints backup quarterback Ryan Griffin, Chiefs linebacker James-Michael Johnson, Jaguars linebacker Jeremiah George, Texans defensive end Kourtnei Brown and Chiefs center Eric Kush. The Bucs had to cut five players to make room for the claims — rookie wide receiver Rannell Hall was waived, along with 2014 draft pick Kadeem Edwards (injured), tight end Cam Brate and tackle Reid Fragel.

–The Bucs kept three undrafted rookies they waived this weekend. Wide receiver Donteea Dye, linebacker Josh Keyes and defensive back Jude Adjei-Barimah are all now on the practice squad. The team has added two players to the practice squad cut by other teams: former Steelers linebacker/defensive end Howard Jones and former Rams cornerback Imoan Claiborne.

–For the second straight season, the Bucs are going with a rookie kicker. This time it’s former Lions kicker Kyle Brindza, who was acquired in a trade for tight end Tim Wright. Brindza took the job that belonged to Patrick Murray, who went 2-for-5 in field-goal attempts in the preseason and missed an extra point.

Brindza has an extraordinarily strong leg. He connected on field-goal tries of 55 and 57 yards in a preseason victory over Miami. He also consistently hit the football deep in the end zone on kickoffs.

Notes: Quarterback Mike Glennon will be the backup to Jameis Winston despite the addition of Ryan Griffin, who was claimed on waivers from the Saints. The Bucs have no plans to trade Glennon this year. … Wide receiver Louis Murphy will be the Bucs No. 3 wideout and could see some time in the slot. … Wide receiver Adam Humphries might have won the job as the Bucs’ punt returner as an undrafted rookie. … Wide receiver Kenny Bell, the team’s fifth-round draft pick, was placed on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury that the Bucs believe will take 6-to-8 weeks to heal. … Center Eric Kush will be the backup center to starter Evan Smith.


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