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Going back to what worked

Mike Alstott caught many passes early in his career, then that was nearly forgotten. Now his role has changed back again.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 1, 2001


photo
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Mike Alstott had 557 yards and three touchdowns receiving as a rookie. The Bucs plan to use him more in that role this season.
TAMPA -- After dropping about 8 pounds in the off-season, fullback Mike Alstott now wants to shed any doubt about the role he will play this season.

And the Bucs are happy to clear up things.

While running back Warrick Dunn appears set to be the team's primary ball carrier, Alstott will play fullback and H-back in earnest.

At times, he will play along the line of scrimmage. At times, he will catch the ball in the open field. At times, he will block.

At no time will he be a forgotten man.

"The majority of the game, I would see him playing fullback and I would see him getting two or three carries out of the fullback position," coach Tony Dungy said. "When Warrick needs a rest, I would see him going back to the running back at times. (He'll be) a short-yardage and goal-line runner for us."

And when the Bucs have the fourth quarter lead?

"I would see him getting five or six carries to salt the game away for us," Dungy said.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It's the same plan with which they entered last season. Only this time, Alstott and the Bucs agree the four-time Pro Bowl fullback has a clear identity in the offensive game plan.

Running backs coach Tony Nathan said the plan is to get Alstott intimately familiar with the H-back position so he can catch the ball out of the backfield the way he did in his rookie season when he had 557 yards receiving and three touchdowns.

"He seems a little bit more comfortable with what we're trying to do," Nathan said. "Last year, he was almost like a fish out of water. It was entirely new to him. He didn't understand what we were asking him to do and he was feeling his way around. Last year is behind him now. We're putting him in positions where he needs to be to get his hands on the ball."

Alstott, 27, wasn't happy about how things went last season but is ready to move on.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
"I know I don't have the best talent but I think I have one of the biggest hearts," said Alstott, right. "All I can do is work hard and play for four quarters and give it my all."

"A lot of things were told to a lot of players. A lot of things were said and never done," said Alstott, who opened camp this year weighing 245 pounds. "That's the bottom line. It just never happened. There's a change and I'm happy with the change."

That change was Clyde Christensen replacing the fired Les Steckel as offensive coordinator.

Christensen, Alstott said, has a deep familiarity with Alstott's skills and a respect for what the running back/fullback hybrid can do.

"It's always good for a guy to be able to plan and know what he has to do and what's expected of him," Dungy said. "I think it is a little bit more defined. One of the things with Les that was tough was that he was trying to find out about Mike Alstott.

"Mike's a unique type of guy and not many people have had experience coaching a guy like that. That's one of the advantages I think Clyde has. He's had five years looking at him and knowing what he can do. I think we have a sure vision of what he should do. Same thing for Keyshawn (Johnson), same thing for Warrick Dunn. All three of those guys probably feel better about what is going to be expected of them."

That's good news for Alstott after such a disappointing 2000 season.

There was a knee injury that cost him three starts. There was a crucial late fumble that led to a loss against the Jets. There was Dunn's emergence as a 100-yard-a-game rusher.

"It was pretty much the first time in my career that I had to deal with things like that," said Alstott, who rushed for 465 yards and five touchdowns. "I think I got a little bit down. But I think I've grown up a lot since then. I've learned that you can't take everything so personal. You can only control things in front of you."

Nonetheless, the doubters started surfacing. The bashing began. Last month, CBS Sportsline labeled Alstott the most overrated player in the NFL.

"That's never fair because it's just people talking about a situation that they don't know anything about," Dunn said in Alstott's defense. "Mike has to just let that roll down his back and keep going.

"It takes a professional guy to do what he's being asked to do. Okay, so his touches might go down in the running game and he may be more involved in the passing game, time will tell. But, I'm sure he'll have the same mind-set that he has always had. He looks like the same old guy who's out there working his butt off."

Rejuvenated by a new start and indications that he will get his hands on the ball, Alstott said he's not going to let the criticism weigh him down.

"You know what's the best part of those things is that's why I made it here (in the NFL)," Alstott said. "Going from high school, there was criticism in the recruiting process. They said, "He's too slow.' All that criticism is why I'm here. I know I don't have the best talent in the world, but I think I have one of the biggest hearts. All I can do is work hard and play for four quarters and give it my all."

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