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Bucs still waiting on '02 draft to pan out

RB Travis Stephens and WR Marquise Walker, picked to make an impact, spent most of last season on IR as rookies.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 20, 2003

TAMPA -- It was long after sunset before the Bucs were finally on the clock in the 2002 NFL draft.

But that's nothing compared to how long the world champions have waited to see if their top picks -- Marquise Walker and Travis Stephens -- will pan out.

A whole new draft class will be assembled next weekend, but Walker and Stephens will again be rookies.

Their first pro season was spent mostly in injured reserve. Walker, a 6-foot-2, 219-pound receiver from Michigan, was inactive for four games before breaking his thumb in practice. Stephens, a 5-8, 208-pound running back from Tennessee, had just one catch for 6 yards in the season opener and did not play in three other games before going on IR with a foot fracture.

"It's a big year for them," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "They're both into competitive situations. We brought in Travis to give us some juice. He's a different kind of back, thick and quick, a guy who might open up some two halfback sets. (Michael) Pittman and Stephens became Pittman and (Aaron) Stecker. Travis has work to do in the passing game, understanding how to run routes. He's got to be able to do that at his size. That's got to be an area of strength.

"Marquise has to develop some versatility. He's got to become a special-teams player. Until he becomes a starter, if you're not the starting wideout, you'd better be a damn good special-teams player. He just can't play one position. It's a big offseason for him. We like his size, we like his run after the catch, we like his toughness. Those are two guys we'd love to see step up."

For that to happen, several players ahead of them might have to be forced to step aside.

Walker is buried at fifth or sixth on a depth chart of accomplished receivers. There's not enough passes to distribute among Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius. Karl Williams is a solid No. 4 and the Bucs just signed Jacquez Green, who possesses speed the others lack.

"We've got the four guys who are ahead of him. They're still here," general manager Rich McKay said. "It's still hard. It didn't get any easier for him."

Stephens has a better chance to earn playing time since Gruden likes to tinker with so many backfield combinations. Plus, Pittman and Mike Alstott utilize more strength than speed while Stephens has both.

But Stephens has little experience in the passing game and his hands are suspect. That's a big negative when his first impact is likely to come as a third-down back.

"He's got the talent and it's obvious if you watch him play or practice," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "But he's got to understand the offense, he's got to be confident in his protections and he's got to be better with the ball and not turn it over.

"When you're an undersized running back, you can be more easily knocked loose of the football. There's techniques he can work on to prevent from fumbling. You have to understand what causes fumbles and I'm not sure he's bought into it. There are techniques he has to use, like using the double-arm when you're in the tackle zone. Not having an exposed point of the ball, those types of things."

Not surprisingly, Walker and Stephens have struggled learning Gruden's intricate offense.

In training camp, Walker became a bit of a whipping post for Gruden, who rode him constantly for not knowing the multiple formations and shifts.

One day after a camp workout, in front of fans, media and players, he engaged Walker in a one-on-one drill. Playing quarterback, Gruden barked signals and Walker tried to respond with the correct formations and routes.

"I think first and foremost, Marquise's first year was really about the transition from college to the NFL," receivers coach Richard Mann said. "It was a big step for him with the offense we've got and having to learn all the nuances. When he started to make some progress is when he got the injury. When he was on IR, he wasn't able to participate on the field.

"Everywhere I've been, guys have had to wait their turn. It was that way with the Jets when Keyshawn was a rookie. The second year is when a player that you've drafted has to come to the forefront."

What's hurting Walker and Stephens is their inability to contribute on special teams. Walker has to learn to cover kicks and Stephens could boost the return game.

"Marquise has to find a way on special teams as he did at Michigan. That was one of his calling cards at Michigan," McKay said. "Now, is it hard for Marquise to understand that? Probably, yes. But he'll get his chance at camp. Travis, the same thing. Travis has got to try to help us on kickoffs or some other way."

Only four players from the 2002 draft class -- Walker, Stephens, safety Jermaine Phillips and cornerback Tim Wansley -- earned spots on the 53-man roster. UCLA linebacker Ryan Nece also made the team as an undrafted free agent but tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

"They get a different window in that if our team was back in the mid 90s, they'd be playing," McKay said. "It can go both ways. It's a different window. It makes it hard for them because they're used to being on the field, getting a chance to make plays and show what they can do. Now it's about patience, it's about the offseason, it's about weightlifting, it's about running. They're on parade every day and it's important to them. Every day is an important day for them."

The waiting must end soon.

"It was frustrating. I really didn't get an opportunity to show what I could do last year," Stephens said. "I was close to getting that opportunity before I got hurt.

"This is going to be a big year for me. For me and Marquise, it's about finding a way to get on the field."

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