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Fullback joins an unstable stable
Veteran Crockett joins injury-depleted corps of runners, but Bucs explore trades.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
Published October 11, 2007
New Bucs fullback Zack Crockett played under coach Jon Gruden in Oakland.
[Brendan Fitterer | Times]
[Brian Cassella | Times]
Seventh-round pick Kenneth Darby led the Bucs in rushing in the preseason but didn't make the last cut.
TAMPA - Opportunity isn't just knocking anymore for running backs in Tampa Bay, the door has been left wide open for anyone who can help.
Barging through Wednesday was 34-year-old fullback Zack Crockett, a 13-year veteran who has some familiarity with the Bucs offense, having played for Jon Gruden from 1999-2001 in Oakland.
Crockett enables the Bucs to utilize Earnest Graham, rookie Kenneth Darby and fullback B.J. Askew as ballcarriers Sunday against the Titans.
But the search hasn't ended.
Gruden indicated the Bucs will continue to beat the streets for running back help and will try to make a deal by Tuesday's NFL trading deadline.
"We might be searching right now. It's just that 'searching' and 'collecting' are two different issues," he said. "You can search all you want, but there are not a lot of teams in football that are willing to part ways with good runners and good players."
Graham, 27, who has rushed for 147 yards on 36 carries 4.1 average and three touchdowns this season, will be making his first NFL regular-season start. Darby, 24, a seventh-round pick from Alabama signed last week from the practice squad, does not have a regular-season stat. Askew, 27, used almost exclusively at fullback, has 27 career rushing attempts.
But those players and Crockett are all the Bucs will have Sunday against a Titans defense that is third in the league against the run, allowing just 72.2 yards per game.
"I feel like Earnest Graham is a very good football player, and Ken Darby is going to get an opportunity, and obviously for a young back at this stage in his career it's a great challenge," Gruden said. "But opportunity only knocks so many times and you got to answer the door, and Ken Darby is going to do that for us."
Nobody, of course, could have anticipated the team's deep pool of running backs being drained so quickly.
Mike Alstott suffered a career-threatening neck injury in training camp and was placed on injured reserve. Cadillac Williams tore the patellar tendon in his right knee two weeks ago at Carolina and is lost for the season.
On Sunday, Michael Pittman suffered a high ankle sprain against the Colts and will miss 6-8 weeks.
The parade of carts taking running backs off the field has been surreal for Art Valero.
"You lose 40 (Alstott) right off the bat and it takes your breath away," the running backs coach said. "Not only do you lose him as a football player and as a leader, you lose him as a teammate and as a presence that's always there. You rally from that and start to go and then you lose Cadillac, who was your bell cow. But he was very quiet with it. That really makes you say, 'Hey, gentlemen, you never know when your last play is going to come. You never know.' Then last week. Michael Pittman never goes down. He doesn't miss games. So when he goes down, I'm thinking, 'Michael's got a cramp.' Because he stood up, walked back and then went down. Then they tell me it could be a broken leg. I went, 'What?'
"That positional picture just got minus three guys. Are you going to sit here and cry about it or grab it by the horns and go? Go get it? That's the way we've got to approach everything."
In some ways, Darby might be the most interesting prospect. He finished his career at Alabama with 3,324 rushing yards, ranking behind only Shaun Alexander and Bobby Humphrey for the most in school history.
Darby led the Bucs in rushing during the preseason with 135 yards on 33 carries with one touchdown. But he was released on the final roster cutdown and didn't find his way back onto the 53-man roster until Williams' injury.
"When you're on the practice squad, you pretty much simulate what other teams are doing to help our team prepare for the opponent, but sometimes I tried to sneak in and do some of our plays on our offense against our defense," Darby said. "Nine out of 10 times Coach Gruden caught me."
Crockett, who played with linebacker Derrick Brooks at Florida State, was working out and hoping for a final chance to resurrect his career. He has the most experience of any running back on the roster, with 509 career rushing attempts and 36 touchdowns.
"He's got to learn a lot of things quick, get reacquainted with what we do here, but he's an NFL veteran player who has played fullback and halfback and contributed on special teams," Gruden said. "And he does have some system background here, so we're going to try to make him a quick study and get him ready to play."