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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Wake-Up Call: Jay Gruden glad to be part of UFL

The Wake-Up Call greets you each weekday with news, views and a few Tampa Bay area sports offerings to anticipate for the day and night. We encourage suggestions and contributions. Good morning! Jay Gruden's very comfortable life in football was jolted last January. His older brother, Jon, was fired as Bucs' head coach - and as a member of his brother's coaching staff, he was suddenly gone, too.
Then he learned about Arena Football's demise. That had been Gruden's primary livelihood for 18 years - dating to his status as the original quarterback of the Tampa Bay Storm through his stint as quarterback/head coach of the Orlando Predators - but now the league was reorganizing and promising to return another year in modified form. That didn't help Gruden, who loved juggling his time between the indoor and outdoor games. He needed a job. "It was scary for a while," said Gruden, the former Chamberlain High School quarterback. "I loved helping Jon with the Bucs and it fit so perfectly with the Arena League. I had it good. Then it all gets blown up. "I was not sure what was going to happen. Then I get a call from out of the blue." It was from Jim Haslett, former coach of the New Orleans Saints. Haslett had just been hired by the Orlando-based Florida Tuskers of the fledgling United Football League. He wanted Gruden to become the Tuskers' offensive coordinator. "So luckily, here I am," Gruden said. It might seem a little bizarre, but it's real. And it's football. The UFL, a modest four-team operation that might develop into an NFL-feeder league, has flown way, way under the sports radar so far. But the Tuskers are thriving with a roster that includes 14 players with ties to the Bucs, including place-kicker Matt Bryant, safety Dexter Jackson (the Super Bowl XXXVII Most Valuable Player) and running back Michael Pittman. Tampa Bay area fans can sample the league Friday night at 7 when the Tuskers (3-0) face the Las Vegas Locomotives (1-1) at Tropicana Field. The Rays' organization has partial ownership of the Tuskers, so staging a UFL game in St. Petersburg is a natural extension of that partnership. The Tuskers worked out at the Trop on Wednesday - with the makeshift field stretching from the home-plate area to right field, the same layout at last season's St. Petersburg Bowl - and Gruden quickly got a flashback. "This is where we played," Gruden said. "I threw a lot of touchdown passes to Stevie Thomas in this building. We thought it was the home of the Storm. Now they've made it into a baseball stadium, which we never thought would happen back then. "This brings back a lot of old memories. Time flies, man." Some things don't change, though. Gruden still has football in his blood. "Jay should be a coordinator in the NFL," Haslett said. "He and his brother are so much alike, it's unbelievable. Football-wise, Jay is ridiculously smart. He's a great fit for us." "Jay understands how to handle the group (of players) and the guys respond to him," Tuskers quarterback Brooks Bollinger said. "He played the position and he's very receptive to what I need. I think he has a great future as a coach." Gruden, 42, isn't certain where it will lead. While raising a young family, he always preferred the stability of Orlando to entering the largely nomadic existence of coaching at the college or professional levels. Now his oldest son is a college freshman and his youngest is 12. And as for the UFL's future? "I hope it has one," Gruden said. "I definitely think there's a place for (professional) football other than the NFL because so many guys who are on the cusp, who are close, but they get forgotten. This is a chance for them to show what they can do." The same could be said for Gruden's career. If the right NFL or coaching job came open, he would listen and investigate. He's not necessarily tied to the future of his brother - "I wouldn't be at all surprised if Jon jumped back in there next season," Gruden said - but a coaching reunion wouldn't be bad, either. Gruden loves his brother's work in ESPN's "Monday Night Football" announcing booth. He's not surprised. After all, in their youth, Gruden remembers his brother constantly imitating football announcers to entertain everyone. "The trick is whether or not Jon wants to go back and deal with all the stress from the media and fans bashing him if he's not getting a first down on the first third-down (opportunity)," Gruden said. "He had a stressful job. Now he's into a job where he can have a pretty fun life. "But Jon is wired a certain way. He's such a competitor, I could see him getting back into it right away. Nothing is a given. I'd like the chance to work with him again. And that opportunity probably would be there. But I wouldn't be opposed to looking around and seeing what else is out there when the jobs start to come open." For now, thought, it's the UFL. Gruden relishes developing his own game plans, calling his own plays and making his own adjustments. "Nobody in this business ever knows what the future might bring," Gruden said. "At the moment, I can tell you this. I'm having a blast." ESPN.com's Brian Bennett listed who's up and who's down in the Big East Conference. Two University of South Florida players were in the "falling stock" department. USF defensive end George Selvie was No. 1. "I hate to say it, because Selvie is one of the nicest guys in the league and a real talent, but his stock is down after the last two games," Bennett writes. "Cincinnati's Jeff Linkenbach and Pitt's Jason Pinkston slowed him down to a crawl. Yes, they had help often, but even in one-on-one situations, Selvie was not the force we'd seen him be in the past." USF cornerback Jerome Murphy was No. 3. "Two very tough games in a row for the talented South Florida senior cornerback," Bennett writes. "He had a mistake-filled night against Cincinnati and was burned repeatedly in the Pitt game. Jim Leavitt hinted at personnel changes this week, and most people immediately looked to Murphy, who will be under fire against West Virginia's passing game." One more thing. Last week, USF junior defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was named as ESPN.com's Big East defensive player of the half-season. Bennett listed his top five choices for Big East defensive player of the year. 1. Mick Williams, DT, Pittsburgh. 2. Lindsey Witten, DE, UConn. 3. Derrell Smith, LB, Syracuse. 4. Aaron Webster, S, Cincinnati. 5. Lawrence Wilson, LB, UConn. No mention of Pierre-Paul. Well, that was a quick turnaround. Falling stock, indeed.

Auburn University freshman running back Onterio McCalebb (Fort Meade) had 148 yards rushing in his opening game and he's still the team's second-leading rusher (464 yards). But McCalebb has rushed for just 48 yards in the last three games - all Auburn losses - and a lingering ankle injury has hampered his cutting ability. Wednesday night, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley became only the second player in the last 45 years to homer in Game 1 of two straight World Series. The other was former Atlanta Braves first baseman Fred McGriff (Jefferson), who accomplished that in 1995 and 1996. Former Rays manager Hal McRae, fired Monday as hitting coach of the St. Louis Cardinals to make way for Mark McGwire, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he's ready to move on. "You're always disappointed when you get laid off," said McRae, whose team scored only six runs in the three-game National League playoff sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "But I'm not disappointed in my work. I don't step back and I don't defend. That's the way I feel about my job, regardless of what people may say. "It was a good year. It just ended badly." McRae was with Manager Tony La Russa's Cardinals for five seasons. "I didn't ask (for a detailed explanation of why the move was made)," McRae said. "What good would it do anyway? When it's over, it's over. We didn't go there. The time to ask questions is before something like this happens, not after." Lafayette College junior place-kicker Davis Rodriguez (St. Petersburg Catholic) was named Patriot League special teams player of the week. Rodriguez had successful field-goal attempts of 21 and 42 yards in a 26-21 win against Fordham. Happy birthday to Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett, who made the American League All-Star Team last July and batted a team-high .320 for Tampa Bay. Friday, Bartlett turns 30. Here's the answer to Wednesday's trivia question: North Fort Myers High School, the alma mater of West Virginia junior running back Noel Devine, who will play against USF on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium, has produced two football players who were selected to the NFL's Pro Bowl - Deion Sanders and Jevon Kearse. Here's our daily sports trivia question, featuring a Tampa Bay/Florida spin. Try your luck by commenting below. Where did Jay Gruden play college football and who was his head coach? Check for the answer in Friday's Wake-Up Call.
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