TAMPA – For a guy who made Buccaneers history and had a huge hand in their biggest victory of 2009, Micheal Spurlock doesn’t feel very special.
If you’d been cut four times by three teams and again found yourself in a fight for a roster spot, perhaps you’d feel a little underappreciated, too. But if this journeyman receiver can overcome the odds, all of that might finally change.
After an eye-opening performance in the Bucs’ preseason win against the Chiefs on Saturday, Spurlock has put himself smack in the middle of what continues to be a wide-open race for roster spots at receiver.
Spurlock broke a three decades-long curse by scoring the franchise’s first kickoff-return touchdown in 2007. And yes, he sparked a road win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Saints last season with an exhilarating punt-return touchdown. But what Spurlock most wants is to be viewed as a complete player.
In his case, that means establishing himself as a receiver, something this converted college quarterback is doing more and more by the day.
“Around here, I feel like they look at me now like, ‘Something has changed,’??” Spurlock said.
“Let me tell you: I’ve been really grinding at this.”
That’s starting to show.
Spurlock finished the Chiefs game with three receptions for 75 yards, none more exciting than his 53-yard touchdown. On the play, he exploited single coverage with an out route, caught a pass from Josh Johnson, shook a tackler and ran untouched down the sideline. His 22-yard reception later, between two defenders, was no less impressive.
They were the sort of plays Spurlock has not shown in the past – not with the Bucs, not with the 49ers and not with the Cardinals. But at 27, he finally looks like a bona fide receiver.
It has been an arduous process. Spurlock, 5 feet 11, was an undersized quarterback at Ole Miss, meaning his pro prospects at the position were between slim and none. That prompted a decision during the predraft process in 2006 to make his NFL bid as a receiver and/or running back (he occasionally played running back in college), which seemed wise but actually wasn’t.
“I think the thing that kind of hurt is because there were so many questions about whether I was a receiver or a running back,” Spurlock said. “But I wasn’t committed to either one.”
Steelers assistant Kirby Wilson, then the Cardinals running backs coach, was dispatched to conduct a workout with Spurlock. That resulted in Spurlock signing with Arizona after going undrafted.
He spent 15 weeks on the practice squad, played just one regular-season game and was released after the season. The Bucs signed him to their practice squad in September 2007. They promoted him to the active roster Nov. 1. Six weeks later came the famous kick return.
But no matter where Spurlock went, he was viewed as a return man with receiver potential rather than a receiver who also happened to return kicks.
“When I was here before, if we had six spots (at receiver), it seemed like five of them were already taken,” he said. “The odds are a lot better now. I’m a lot older. I’m a lot more mature.
“So this comes from five years of learning receiver and understanding the game. I won’t make the excuse that I didn’t have an opportunity before. I just have a better one now.”
His chances also are improved because of the inability of running back Clifton Smith to stay on the field. After sustaining a pair of concussions last season that landed him on injured reserve, Smith hasn’t played this preseason because of a hamstring injury and the goutlike inflammation that kept him out Saturday. Smith is not seen as a good option at running back, meaning his value is in the return game – an area in which Spurlock can contribute.
“I think it helps my chances,” Spurlock said, referring to his multiple roles. “When I came in the league, I was always told the more you can do if you can hold or snap or whatever, it makes it hard on them to cut you.”
Spurlock’s versatility and history of playing quarterback helps his understanding of offensive concepts, too. While playing in Arizona, he learned the importance of fully comprehending schemes from another former college quarterback: Anquan Boldin.
“The great receivers understand the whole picture,” Spurlock said. “Most receivers look at it like, ‘I’m playing this spot. And this is my route, and that’s all.’??”
Now Spurlock has a new level of perspective.
“The funny thing about me playing receiver now is that I understand why my receivers were always looking at me like I was crazy after a play,” Spurlock said.
Spurlock has been just as impressive as any of the middle-of-the-pack receivers during training camp. They include Reggie Brown, Maurice Stovall and rookie Arrelious Benn, whom the team is bringing along slowly.
Whether Spurlock makes it in 2010 remains unclear. But now that he looks like a legitimate receiver, the odds are better these days he’ll make it somewhere.
“I’m having a ball,” he said. “My family wants me to be in Tampa. I want to be in Tampa. But we’ve been from coast to coast, too. So we’ll have to see what happens.”
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