By GARY SHELTON St. Petersburg Times Sports Columnist
TAMPA, Fla.— Now, here’s a question for Raheem.
Why not give the ball to Kareem?
With every game, with every carry, the answer seems more obvious. The Bucs are halfway through their preseason, and already, Kareem Huggins leads the team in fun. He is the kid with the magic feet and rare determination, and every time he touches the ball, you can feel electricity run through a dormant offense.
So here’s another question:
Isn’t it time for a promotion?
Two games in, and how can you not like what you see out of Huggins? He has run the ball 16 times, and he has gained 99 yards. He has some dart, and he has some dash, and he has some danger. When is the last time the Bucs had too much of any of that?
Granted, it is the preseason, and granted, Tampa Bay has had its fill of training camp teases . But the more you watch Huggins, it is apparent there is something there. He looks so much like a running back determined to go somewhere that he will make you forget that he came from nowhere – which, if you think about it, might be the coolest thing about his story.
That, and the impression he is threatening to push the disappointing Derrick Ward further down the depth chart.
Given his speed, given his explosion, how can Huggins not be considered at least the Bucs’ No. 2 back behind Cadillac Williams as the regular season approaches? At this point, the only numbers Ward has that Huggins does not are on his contract.
Eventually, that should not matter. Oh, players enter the NFL in all sorts of ways, and some of them get longer chances and better ones. In the end, however, professional sports is a meritocracy. If you can do the job better, you should do the job more often. And so far, Huggins has been far, far better than Ward.
Not to pick on Ward, who might have suffered a concussion Saturday night, but so far, his biggest impression on this year’s Bucs was to show up overweight and complain about the same mud that Huggins was running through in Miami. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Huggins was the big-money free agent and Ward was the guy trying to scratch his way into the NFL. So far Huggins has averaged 6.2 yards per carry; Ward is averaging 1.8.
At this point, it does the Bucs no good to play favorites. They won only three times last year, and they had the 23rd-ranked rushing offense in the league. They were one of only two teams in the NFL that didn’t have a run of longer than 35 yards all season. They could use Huggins’ speed. They could use his doggedness.
There for a while, all Huggins had was his belief. Go back to 2008, and the NFL had almost no interest in a small back from Hofstra. He hadn’t been drafted after college, and the Jets gave him a tryout without offering him a contract. So Huggins went home to Irvington, N.J., and began to work out. Every day.
Can you imagine? No job, no jersey, no promises and no pedigree, and still, Huggins would not give it up. Across America, there are a thousand guys like this, guys who refuse to take no for an answer, guys who refuse to listen to those who tell them to give it up and find a profession. Most of them never get closer to the NFL than their TV sets.
Huggins is different. He worked out, and his older brother (Ashley Pierre) gave him money to send game tapes to teams, and his mother (Sabrina Alston) kept his spirits up. Huggins kept sweating, telling himself he was on his way “to be a better man.”
“If no one else is going to believe in you, you have to believe in yourself,” Huggins says quietly. “I’m sure a lot of guys think they’re good enough to play the game, but you have to stay humble.”
It is odd. In some ways, Huggins has been following after Raheem Morris, the Bucs’ coach, all of his life. They were born in Newark, N.J. They were raised in Irvington. They went to Hofstra.
So does Huggins think of himself as a long shot?
“I try not to think about that,” Huggins said. “I just play. I try to play every game like it’s my last game.”
So far, Huggins has shown enough to earn more. Already, Huggins seems to have touched a chord with Bucs fans. After all, it’s easy to pull for the guy with a small chance instead of the one with a big contract. We all love a come-from-nowhere story. We all admire a player who does it the hard way.
Yes, some of the time, training camp stars can fool you. Remember Randy Hedberg of Minot State back in 1977? He had fans asking “Why Not Minot” though, pretty much, all he did was hit one long pass in preseason. Once the regular season started, Hedberg lost all four of his starts and left with a quarterback rating of 8.0.
Then there was Jerry Golsteyn, who had a 96.1 rating in the 1983 preseason. That was good enough to get three regular-season starts. He lost them all.
There was Scott Milanovich, and Casey Weldon, and Luke McCown. They come, they go.
Every now and then, however, someone breaks through. Earnest Graham, for instance, owned August for years before becoming an essential player. Eventually, it was the Bucs who were wrong about Graham, not the other way around. Now, Huggins is running like a player determined to make a similar journey.
So why should anyone believe Huggins is that rare player who graduates from training-camp wonder to regular-season regular? Don’t look at his numbers. Look at the way he bursts through the line. Look at the possibilities.
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