TAMPA — Running through plays in your head while watching from the sideline is no way to start what has to be a breakout season. That, though, is how this year has started for Buccaneers defensive end Da’Quan Bowers.
Sidelined by an unspecified injury, Bowers spent the majority of his time on the field during the Bucs’ three-day minicamp this week watching the players he’s battling for playing time take all the reps.
He didn’t seem to mind. Bowers is confident he’ll be back on the field soon, and he’s certain the changes the Bucs have made the past few months will enable him to have the breakout year he needs.
“It’s a good time to be a defensive end here,” said Bowers, who is fighting for playing time at left end with projected starter Adrian Clayborn and second-year pro William Gholston.
“We’re not going to have the same restrictions on us that we’ve had in the past, so there will be a lot of getting after the quarterback the way defensive ends like to get after the quarterback. That’s a good thing.”
Bowers was known for getting after the quarterback as well as anyone when he was in college. A Clemson product, he left school following his junior year after emerging as the top pass-rush prospect in the 2011 draft.
Since then, though, his career has been in a tailspin.
Hindered by a knee injury his first year and by an Achilles tendon tear his second, Bowers has been struggling for three years to regain his form. He believes he is finally on the brink of doing that, but not just because the system that coach Lovie Smith is implementing is more conducive to his skill set and freelancing style.
Bowers says he has learned from some of the mistakes he has made, particularly the one a year ago when he was handed a starting job that he quickly lost after he showed up for training camp out of shape.
“I take responsibility for all of it,” Bowers said of his poor play in 2013. “I’m not going to beat up any of the coaching staff or anybody from last year for that. That was all on me. But this is a fresh start for me, and I’ve been here for most of the offseason already, trying to make sure I come into camp in shape and doing some different things. I mean, I had to change up my routine.”
One of the changes the 6-foot-6 Bowers is making is to his body. Now at 280 pounds — already 8 pounds less than he weighed at the start of last season — he hopes to get to 270 for the start of this season.
Of course, none of that will matter if Bowers can’t rediscover a quick path to the passer. He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract and is quickly running out of opportunities to earn another, at least from the Bucs.
“He’s a good football player, but he needs to prove it right now,” Smith said Thursday. “He’ll get that opportunity, but a player like that should be able to excel in a defense like ours.”
The reasons are simple. Gone are the looping stunts around other linemen that characterized the defense the Bucs ran a year ago and slowed, if not angered, linemen such as defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
In their place is a much simpler scheme that relies mostly on the players’ quickness, speed and persistence and asks each lineman to take the most direct path available to the passer.
“Everything is a lot less technical,” Bowers said. “Your job is to (get to the passer) the best way you can, without any restrictions, and that’s going to be better for the whole defensive line.
“But it’s especially important for me. I mean, every year is crucial, but this year has to be a turning point for me. That’s why, for me, this coaching change couldn’t have come at a better time.”