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Helllloooo down there

Into a Bucs camp filled with big receivers blazes Aaron Lockett ... if you can find him. Hint: Look low.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


TAMPA -- "The Rocket" is ready to launch.

All he needs is to have a little space created and Aaron Lockett will scorch the turf beneath his feet.

But on his first day of minicamp, the countdown was halted as the Kansas State rookie dropped the first punt. Then he dropped the next one.

"I dropped a few," Lockett said. "The ones I did catch, I felt very comfortable. And the ones I dropped were not that bad. I was just very antsy, very excited. It is the NFL. Kicks are a little higher, hang a little longer. But for the most part, I'm sure after a while I'll get my rhythm. In due time, I definitely think I'll get my niche back there and start to do my thing."

At 5 feet 8, 155 pounds, Lockett, dubbed the "Rocket" by coach Jon Gruden, will be one of the smallest players in the NFL if he makes the Bucs roster. He also will be one of the fastest, as evidenced by his 4.27 40-yard dash at the league's scouting combine.

Gruden said that for Lockett to stick around, he will have to make an impact as a kickoff and punt returner.

Gruden prefers his receivers to be able to scrape the sky. Lockett will always look up to players like Keyshawn Johnson, Joe Jurevicius and Michigan rookie Marquise Walker. Literally.

"You can just look in the NFL. Wide receivers that play in this game that are under 5 foot 10, you could probably count on your right hand," Gruden said. "Then you'd have to name them to me. Guys who play in this league are bigger guys. They're durable players that can run after the catch that can take a pounding, that can block the perimeter for some of the perimeter runs, the screens and things of that nature.

"He's got to make the punt return aspect a big deal. He's got to clearly be dominant in that area in terms of who's on our team. That's No. 1. No. 2, he's got to learn our system of football so we can use him creatively and that's a challenge he has ahead of him."

But then, Lockett has never been one to lose a challenge. The son of an enlisted Army man, he has a brother Kevin who is a receiver for the Redskins. His relatives gave him plenty of inspiration to carve out a career at Kansas State.

"You know, it's something I probably learned from my family. My father was in the Army when I was a younger age and he's a guy who is very disciplined, not strict, but he knows right from wrong," Lockett said. "Just seeing my brother and watching him go out there and accomplish things gave me a sense that we do have it in our bloodline to do it if you want to. At this level, when you make plays, you get a lot of publicity and that makes you feel good about yourself."

Gruden said that despite Lockett's size, there is no doubt about his toughness and ability to handle the punishment of a kick returner.

"I think you have to be a tough guy to return punts," Gruden said. "Those guys got a little kamikaze in them to start with. The fact is he's (5-8), he's 155 pounds and chances are, no matter what kind of program you put him on, he's not going to get a heck of a lot bigger. So he must be a tough nut and at the same time, he's shown a knack for making explosive plays. He's very nervous right now and we've just got to get him to relax and calm down and show that he's capable of doing it."

There is good reason for Lockett to be nervous. For starters, he plays a position that is the most competitive on the team. He probably will have to unseat veteran Karl Williams, the Bucs career leader in punt return yardage and touchdowns.

In addition to his kick return job, Lockett will have to prove he can contribute as a receiver.

"He's got to show that he can go in the game and play, run patterns, do what's expected of him and be where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there," Gruden said. "Use that speed. He's got to prove that he can catch the ball and execute and make plays when he has to and he's going to get that opportunity."

On Saturday, Lockett made adjustments and began fielding punts flawlessly. But he admits, like Dorothy, this isn't Kansas anymore.

"It's hard to keep your emotions down," Lockett said. "It was very overwhelming. I remember when we would play Nebraska at K-State and that would be the biggest game in the world. But that game was half of the excitement I felt just putting on the shirt and stepping onto the field.

"But I think this minicamp gives me an opportunity to come in here, understand what I need to do, whatever mistake I have to make, get them out of the way. Hopefully, I did that in (the first) practice."


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