The patchwork offensive line for the Tampa Bay Bucs still hopes to be improved on last year. If so, it will take players from different positions to make it so.
Two are rookies. Two are second-year players who earned their reputations elsewhere. One is just off of an airplane. None of them have been here as long as head coach Lovie Smith, who enters his second season.
Together, they are responsible for keeping rookie quarterback Jameis Winston upright.
The Tampa Bay offensive line, one of the most glaring shortcomings of them all in last year’s 2-14 season, will make its second preseason start Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals. In so doing, it hopes to improve last season’s 29th ranked rushing attack and 30th ranked protection unit.
This year, the starters appear to be rookies Donovan Smith (left tackle) and Ali Marpet (right guard), free agent Gosder Cherilus (right tackle), and second-year Bucs Evan Smith (center) and Logan Mankins (left guard). Cherilus joined the team this week to take the place of injured tackle Demar Dotson.
“I’m doing better,” Dotson said. “It’s not an ACL tear; that’s good news. I was afraid of that. But a lot of people have prayed and I appreciate everybody’s prayers. That’s good news, and hopefully I get a chance to come back out here within six weeks or so. That’s the plan, and I’ll be rehabbing like crazy so I can come back here and finish the season.”
Dotson said the first few minutes after the injury were the worst. He had been kept in the game longer than many starters to protect Winston.
“It was tough,” he said. “But I really thought it was going to be worse than what it was. But I’m a guy that’s strong in faith, so whatever would have happened, I would have been OK. It’s just good news to me that it’s not a whole-season deal. I get a chance to come back out here and see what happens.”
Bucs’ coach Smith said he was fortunate that a veteran such as Cherilus was on the market. Cherilus was released this summer by the Colts.
“We’re very pleased with adding a player like that,” Smith said. “At the same time, this is his first week of training camp. That’s how we are looking at it for him. He’s a pro. He’s a veteran who has been around the game. He knows how to prepare. He knows what is at stake and how long he has to get himself ready for Tennessee. Just a good addition to our locker room and our football team.”
Center Smith thinks the line is progressing.
“We’re doing well,” he said. “We’re down some numbers right now, so we are getting a lot of rotation. A lot of guys are getting a lot of reps. It’s good for everybody to get out there and get all those reps, get all that work. We had a pretty good day yesterday. We had a pretty good day today. We still need to clean up some mental stuff, but physically we are going out here and getting better every day.”
Smith said that guard Ali Marpet is growing into his position.
“He’s doing good. For me, I remember when I first got in the league and I was a (Divison) 1-AA player, kind of coming in to better competition and stuff like that. Once you start playing and he gets to play against (defensive tackle) Gerald (McCoy), he can realize he can play at this level.
“The game was good for him to go out there and play too, because you get live game reps. It’s just that experience is only going to help him. He’s doing a good job with making things better every day. Like I said, the physical part we’ve been coming out here and everybody is getting better at something every day. The mental part is the part where everybody needs to start picking it up a little bit more.”