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Forget anticipation, let's see what the talk's about

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 11, 2002


It's there. Just around the bend. Can you see it?

Any minute now. Can you make it out through the trees? Are you there yet?

This is what it is like approaching one of the world's natural wonders. There is that moment on the verge, when the experience is just beyond sight and sound, when you tend to brace yourself in case what you see does not match what you have heard.

The brand-new Bucs are just ahead.

Can you make them out in the distance?

They take the field for their first preseason game Monday night, and frankly, it's about time. You only want to hear people talk about the Grand Canyon so long before you want to judge for yourself how big the hole is. There are so many smiles to be drawn from a postcard from Disney World.

It's that way with the Bucs, too. It is positively delightful that everyone in a Bucs uniform is having such a swell camp and all, but it's time to see it. It's time for the world tour of Chucky and the Vagabonds to play the opening show.

What, then, should we be looking for? Oh, not much. A little domination, a little deception, a hint that things are better because of the 79 or so changes the Bucs have made since last we saw them.

If Jon Gruden can order what Steve Spurrier is having, in other words, that would be just dandy.

Spurrier, of course, had the perfect start with his Redskins. He won. His players looked good. And the other coach couldn't stop whining about him. You know, the triple crown of preseason openers.

Ah, but around here?

Ten things to look for in Monday's game against the Dolphins.

1. The offense. We have heard much about how much there is to Gruden's attack, but does anyone in this time zone really know what it is? No, it isn't bombs away. It's a lot of motion, a lot of shifts, a lot of mismatches. It's also Warren Sapp going long!

Is it a lot of points?

We'll see.

2. The offensive line. I know, I know. If heaven would have wanted you to watch offensive linemen, it would have designed plays for them to get the ball.

With the Bucs, however, this is the most important position on the field. Tampa Bay could have as many as four new starters (five, if you count the tight end), which means there are days Bill Muir must feel like an orchestra leader.

Is Kenyatta Walker a left tackle or a right? Is Jeff Christy going to hold off Todd Washington? Does Lomas Brown have any good stories about blocking for Red Grange? Most of all, are the holes to be found, and if so, are the defensive linemen on the proper side of them?

3. The quarterbacks. Starring Brad Johnson as the tortoise and Rob Johnson as the hare. Does Gruden go for the steadiness in Brad or the flash in Rob? Is this the first salvo in a bona fide quarterback competition? Will Brad throw it more than five yards at a time? Will Rob go wiggy with a linebacker in his grill?

Not to worry. Beginning with this game, Gruden will have about a half-million advisers.

4. The defensive point of attack. Last year, other teams decided the Bucs had a glass jaw. They ran right at Tampa Bay, and the defense against the run fell to 12th.

The Dolphins, with new acquisition Ricky Williams, will be a good test for the Bucs' toughness. Every play up the middle will reveal clues about Sapp's shoulder, about Derrick Brooks' ankle and about Shelton Quarles in the middle.

Hey, you don't get to be heavyweight champ if you can't stop the jab.

5. The running backs. The intrigue begins with Michael Pittman, the powerful back salvaged from the Cardinals. The Bucs see him as an every-down back, and the franchise has cried for one for years. This is his first chance to show it.

There are other questions, however. How will Gruden use Mike Alstott? Will Alstott finally run the ball from the fullback position, or will he be a short-yardage specialist? Who's the third-down back? Aaron Stecker or rookie Travis Stephens?

Most of all, can the backs stay off their backs?

6. The wide receivers. For the first time in a while, the Bucs have talked to linguists and have discovered that "wide receivers" is, in fact, plural. Last year, there was only Keyshawn Johnson. It's a wonder teams didn't surround him with five defensive backs at a time.

This year, the Bucs have brought in Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius, Marquise Walker and tight end Ken Dilger in an attempt to share the wealth.

How will they be used? Who's the third receiver? Who's the fourth one? Who's in trouble? And are any of these guys really Alvin Harper?

7. The red zone. One of Gruden's strengths has been the way he has attacked the goal line once his teams got within sight.

That would be welcome. Around here, it's called the "parking zone." True story: Les Steckel used to call it the green zone. The Bucs don't even know what color zone they're in!

8. The linebackers. Start with Quarles, who the Bucs have absolute belief in in the middle. But there is also Al Singleton on the outside. The good news is that Brooks is healthy again, but overall, five of the six ankles of the starting linebacker corps bear watching.

9. The secondary. If the Bucs are able to score more, other teams might try to force the issue a little more this season.

That points to cornerback Brian Kelly and safety Dexter Jackson. Both need to make plays. How the Bucs use Dwight Smith and Terrell Buckley will be interesting, too.

10. Gruden. More than anything, Gruden bears watching. With his scowl and energy, he's going to be different than we're used to than with Tony Dungy.

When it's all over, if Dave Wannstedt could take time to gripe about him, that might help, too.

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