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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Bucs’ success may hinge on rebuilt offensive line

— Josh McCown can have a skyline of towering targets, but it won’t matter if he’s on his back looking up.

The new Tampa Bay Buccaneers running attack, a cast of thousands, varying sizes, speeds and skills, won’t go anywhere without someone making holes.

Magical mystery offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford can concoct new plays, bells and whistles everywhere, but it won’t make a sound unless there’s music up front.

Oh, that O-line.

What will it be?

Strong link or sausage links?

Lovie Smith and Bucs GM Jason Licht have remade the Bucs offensive line.

What will it be?

Granite or gelatin?

“It starts with us,” said the new left tackle, Anthony Collins. “Oh, most definitely, it starts with us. If we have a bad day, the whole offense has a bad day. We put it on us. ... We lose a game, it’s on us, point blank period.”

Davin Joseph and Donald Penn are gone. So is Carl Nicks’ sad story. Throw out Jeremy Zuttah, too.

Meet the new crew.

“I think that every guy on this offensive line needs to prove himself on Sunday,” right tackle Demar Dotson said.

Collins, who replaces Penn, came over from Cincinnati and is in his seventh NFL camp. But it’s his first as a presumptive starter.

“I’ve come to no training camp as a starter,” Collins said, “but any time I get on the field, as a substitute or as a starter, my job is to take care of my business and protect my quarterback, point blank period.”

Center Evan Dietrich-Smith, another free-agent signing, should be more physical than Zuttah. Dotson is a hidden gem at right tackle.

Then we arrive in Shaky Town.

It’s a grab bag at guard, where Joseph and Nicks once played, and we’re not sure there’s a first prize in there, either. The Bucs are trying all kinds of combinations in training camp, among Jamon Meredith, Patrick Omameh, Oniel Cousins and rookie Kadeem Edwards. These four have only 33 NFL starts combined, and Meredith has 24 of those. I’m not sure there are any pancakes in that batter.

“We like the prospects,” Smith said. “We don’t have a lot of players at the position who’ve started a lot of games. You go against Gerald McCoy every day, you get better.”

By the way, word at camp is that McCoy has been in the offensive backfield. A lot. He could be a fifth-string quarterback.

Be afraid.

“We lost a good core group of guys. Davin and Penn and Zuttah and those guys were the rock of this offensive line for years,” Dotson said. “When you lose a core, a group of guys like that, it puts a dent in this offensive line. I look around and I don’t think we have the same standards that guys like Davin and Penn would hold us to.”

Maybe that comes with time.

But is there time?

“Whoever is playing next to me and whoever is playing next to Dot, they’re going to get the job done,” Collins said.

The Bucs ranked ninth in offense in the NFL in 2012. The offensive line had a lot to do with that. The Bucs were ranked 32nd, dead last in 2013. The offensive line had a lot to do with that. Among other things, it allowed 47 sacks last season.

And away we go.

The preseason opens Friday at Jacksonville. But the true test is when real games start, and it will get real really, really fast.

For there’s Carolina. The Panthers had the NFL’s second-ranked defense in 2013 and were No. 1 with 60 sacks, with defensive ends Greg Hardy (15 sacks) and Charles Johnson (11 sacks) and linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Week 2 brings the St. Louis Rams and more nightmares, including defensive end Robert Quinn, who had an NFC-best 19 sacks last season. He’s heading Anthony Collins’ way. Point blank period.

“Every game is a test, but when you got those guys from Carolina, and you got Quinn and Long there in St. Louis, it’s going to show who you are,” Dotson said.

This offense will ride on it.

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