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After hectic arrival, Spence is settling in

By ROGER MILLS and RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2000


TAMPA -- It's been, to say the least, a hectic experience. But backup tight end Blake Spence wouldn't trade it for a thing.

Aug. 21, Spence, 25, was waived by the Jets and unsure of his future.

The next day came a call from his agent, Brian Mackler, telling him to grab the first flight to Tampa. With one duffel bag on his shoulder, Spence arrived around 1 a.m., Wednesday morning and checked in at the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel.

The Bucs picked him up at 7 a.m., and he took a physical and was in a team meeting at 8 a.m. By 11 a.m., he was on the practice field.

"It's been a whirlwind," Spence said. "I have been here a week, but I tell you what, it's been one of the wildest weeks of my life and one of the most important weeks of my life."

It ended on a happy note Sunday when Spence beat out James Whalen to make the 53-player roster.

For someone who grew up in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., landing with the Bucs was a dream come true. As it turns out, Spence grew up a devout Bucs fan. "This is so ironic," said Spence, a 6-foot-4, 249 pounder who also can play fullback. "But I was a huge fan. I loved the colors, yes, the orange. I loved that they were always underdogs. I expressed how much I wanted to come here when I was coming out of college."

A fifth-round draft pick of the Jets in 1998, Spence played tight end at the University of Oregon. He finished as the school's second all-time receiver with 91 catches for 1,368 yards and 10 ntouchdowns.

Playing behind Dave Moore, Patrick Hape and Todd Yoder with the Bucs, Spence said he has lots to learn before he sees time on the field.

"They said to concentrate on third-down stuff, so I really need to get with the coaches and learn a lot of this stuff," Spence said. "I have to learn all this new terminology. It's like learning Japanese."

* * *

WILL HE GET RESPECT?: Cornerback Donnie Abraham is quiet and unassuming. Playing in a defense of stars, he is easily overlooked. But after recording seven interceptions last season, two of which were returned for touchdowns, Abraham enters this season with a chance to make the Pro Bowl.

"I don't know how he does it, but he's a very smart guy and understands what the offense is trying to do and has got great instincts," coach Tony Dungy said. "We're not known as a man-coverage team; our front seven gets the notoriety. But I don't know how you can ignore a couple of years like that in a row."

HAPPY RETURNS: When Aaron Stecker first walked into a locker room at One Buc Place, he was a practice squad player sharing a locker with another practice squad player long since gone.

Now he's sharing one with newly signed safety Eric Vance. No problem. Stecker, who impressed the coaching staff with purposeful running throughout the preseason, is no practice squad player. He's a member of the 53-player roster, which means receiving, at the least, the NFL minimum of $193,000.

"I think I did what I had to do, and now I'm on the team," Stecker said. "You still make a lot of money any way you look at it. So I'm out here having fun, playing a game I love and (I) get to make some money doing it. What beats that?"

NOTGETTINGCUT.COM: Yoder, a free-agent rookie from Vanderbilt who made the roster, said Sunday was difficult. He spent it sitting by the phone.

"It was nerve-racking, exciting, everything all rolled up into one," Yoder said. "I don't think I really believed it until I saw it on the computer. I knew before then that they hadn't called (by 4 p.m.), but until I saw it on the computer was when it started sinking in."

He said he sat by the phone from noon to 2 p.m. and was interrupted on a number of occasions my his mother.

"I kept saying, "Mom, what are you doing?' " Yoder said.

GOOD TIMING: Place-kicker Martin Gramatica's slump appears to be over and just in time for the regular-season opener at New England on Sunday.

Gramatica missed his first three field-goal attempts in the preseason and opened two exhibition games by knocking the kickoff out of bounds. But Gramatica connected on his last four field-goal attempts -- including all three against Kansas City on Friday -- and has the Bucs breathing easier.

* * *

"My mind was never uneasy," Dungy said. "He's a guy you just feel like is going to make it every time he goes out there. So I knew he wasn't in a groove, and I knew that groove would come back eventually. It was good it came back in the preseason. But I don't think anybody here had any concerns about him.

"The way we play, he's very valuable. We feel field position is important. Getting those points when you can. Anytime we can put our defense ahead, we feel like it's a plus. So getting those three pointers is very important to us.

TOUGH OPENER: Dungy is 1-3 in regular-season openers, including 0-2 on the road.

That's what makes Sunday's game at Foxboro such an interesting one for the Bucs, who have seven starters on offense and and three on defense who were not in the starting lineup in the 1999 season opener.

"It's always tough opening on the road," Dungy said. "But by the same token, if you get a road win, you really feel good about that. "(The Patriots) are a tough opponent. Outstanding defensive team. They do a lot of different things on defense and they can move the ball quickly on offense. They scored on big plays against us and that's what we're going to have to try to eliminate."

TEE IT UP: The Bucs concluded the preseason Friday, but today's practice marks the official start of the 2000 campaign for players and coaches.

The Bucs will begin to install their offensive and defensive game plan for Sunday.

"I think starting (with today's practice), guys really get geared up," Dungy said. "They know it counts. They know the stakes go up. They know, hey, we've got the group that we're going to go to battle with."

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