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Rookie relies on patience, quickness

RB Travis Stephens has shown promise during the preseason, could give Bucs another option on offense.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 23, 2002

RB Travis Stephens has shown promise during the preseason, could give Bucs another option on offense.

TAMPA -- Redskins coach Steve Spurrier, then the coach at Florida, knows him only too well.

He probably remembers every carry, every explosive stride, every quick change of direction Travis Stephens displayed Dec.1 en route to a 226-yard performance in Gainesville last season.

Ask any Gator player what he remembers about the former Tennessee running back that day, and they likely would say, "The back of his jersey ... running away."

That explosiveness enticed the Bucs into making Stephens a fourth-round draft pick in April.

That explosiveness, some believe, will ease the disappointment over Warrick Dunn's departure.

And that explosiveness will be molded by coach Jon Gruden into a weapon.

Judging from a team-high 82 yards on 18 preseason carries, Stephens, 24, is disappointing no one.

"At first in minicamps learning the offense, there was a lot that Gruden threw at us," Stephens said. "But coming into training camp, I basically knew mostly the whole offense. I pretty much had a good idea what to expect as far as the plays. I've come a long way as far as from the minicamps to training camp.

"I'm feeling good. They've done a good job of getting me in the preseason games and getting me a lot of reps. Hopefully, I can help myself to further move into the offense and get more reps."

Saturday against the Redskins, Stephens likely will get more opportunities to impress the coaching staff.

The Bucs probably will play their starters through the first quarter. But Michael Pittman has a sprained ankle and Mike Alstott is recovering from a concussion sustained Aug.16 against the Jaguars. That means ample carries for Stephens and Aaron Stecker.

After playing behind Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry at Tennessee, Stephens understands waiting.

"I learned some patience, so I'm not rushing things," he said. "I learned to just be patient and just wait my turn.

"That's all I can do. I can only control what I do as far as learning the system." As a rookie, Stephens entered training camp with some trepidation.

But he said he is grateful for the help and encouragement he received from Pittman, Alstott and the coaching staff. "He's getting better," Pittman said.

"He's young and a bit wired up and is trying to do everything at full speed. He needed to slow down a little bit and has done that since he's been here. He's trying to get a little bit more patient with his runs."

Running back coach Kirby Wilson said Stephens has little idea of his potential and has shown a degree of maturity in his ability to handle challenges.

During the early days of camp, Stephens was plagued by blisters on his hands and feet but still practiced. "What we have is a guy who is definitely explosive, a guy with some mental toughness to him," Wilson said. "He's exhibited that by battling and practicing through some of those injuries. We have a guy who cares. Football is important to him.

"He's learning and, for the most part, isn't committing the same mistakes twice. He does break down occasionally, like most rookies do. But that's the way they learn."

Wilson said Stephens must pay attention to ball security. Stephens, 5 feet 8, 194 pounds, has had a couple of drops in practice and fumbled against the Jaguars.

"He's got to be absolutely perfect with his ball security," Wilson said. "He does (have an issue there). Everyone can be knocked loose of a football. But with Travis, he's so explosive, so much of a big play waiting to happen, he does get a little careless with the football.

"He's getting ahead of himself, thinking of the guy downfield and not about the guy coming from the side who's going to hit him. You can't get lazy with the ball skills."

Gruden said steps can be taken to emphasize ball security but stressed he isn't going to let the fumble taint his appreciation for Stephens' playmaking ability.

"You drill it," Gruden said. "You try to have your defense grab at it, poke it out of there, hit it every time. At the same time, you don't want to inhibit his running style completely or make him paranoid.

"You emphasize it in drills and in the meeting rooms, and then you point it out very sternly when you see a loose ball. Every so often, you put on a highlight reel of about 30-40 fumbles and point out that these (defensive players) are paid a lot of money to get the ball back on defense. But he's been pretty darned solid hanging on to the football. He had the fumble the other night, but's that's an isolated thing, I believe."

-- Times staff writer Darrell Fry contributed to this report.

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