TAMPA — The sun was just beginning to rise over Tampa Bay on Monday when Buccaneers right tackle Demar Dotson sat down in a meeting room at One Buc Place, turned on a computer and started prepping for the New York Jets.
“It's real work now,'' Dotson said a few hours later during a Labor Day lunch break at the Bucs training facility. “The preseason is over with. It's time now to get your mindset on what's real.''
Here is the Bucs' reality: Their season opener is set for 1 p.m. Sunday against the Jets at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. That means the first of what coach Greg Schiano refers to as the Bucs' 16 one-game seasons started Monday.
For players such as Dotson, a fifth-year pro who is gearing up for his first opening day start, the start of “Season 1'' represented a long-anticipated and much-welcomed change.
“It's exciting to finally get back into a real game week where we're preparing for an opponent,'' defensive end Adrian Clayborn said. “It's good to be studying up on a guy again, trying to get an edge on him. It brings back memories.''
Clayborn hasn't started a work week like this since last September, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Dallas during a Week 3 — make that Season 3 — loss to the Cowboys.
The wait hasn't been quite that long for Dotson, who started the last 15 games at right tackle after winning the job away from Jeremy Trueblood last year. But that doesn't diminish his excitement level.
“Everyone's excited, they're ready to go,'' Schiano said. “We have a lot of work to do this week to get ready for the Jets, but everybody is very upbeat about it. We're ready to go.''
Most are. Left guard Carl Nicks (staph infection) and tight end Tom Crabtree (ankle sprain) participated in off-field work on Monday but neither was with the team when it took the field for practice in the afternoon.
Gabe Carimi replaced Nicks for the portion of practice the media was allowed to watch and Luke Stocker was in at tight end, while Erik Lorig (calf) returned to work at the fullback spot that Crabtree had been manning.
Whether the Bucs will line up that way on Sunday remains uncertain. Schiano would not divulge his game-day plans for any of the positions in which starters have not officially been named or are hurt.
That includes the defensive end spot opposite Clayborn, the cornerback spot opposite former Jets standout Darrelle Revis, the slot corner spot and the strongside linebacker position.
In some cases, the mystery won't last much longer. The Bucs' first official depth chart is due out today, and with it will come a new rush of adrenalin for not just the fans, but also the players and coaches as well.
“There's definitely a renewed energy now,'' Schiano said. “I mean, you go through training camp and it's bang, bang, bang and there's a kind of 'Time to make the doughnuts' mentality. But now, all of a sudden, we have a game — and soon.
“So now you get to where you're spending a lot of hours game-planning, and that's the fun part of coaching, where you actually take that scheme and mesh it into another team's offense, defense and special teams.
“Now you're fitting this coverage to their route or fitting this protection to their blitz. It's very specific: 'When you set here on so and so, be ready.' Or, 'This is how he's going to run this route.' ''
The added attention to detail is one of the biggest differences between the preseason and regular season. Teams don't spend much time, if any, scheming for preseason games. That's why the results are often discouraging.
They certainly were for the Bucs, who went 1-3 and allowed 13 sacks while recording just five in the preseason. But Schiano says he'll go into Sunday feeling this team is better than the one that went 7-9 last year.
“The obvious (area where we're better) is in the secondary, but I also think we've improved our team in a lot of areas that aren't quite as obvious, and I'll just leave it at that,'' Schiano said.
“I don't want to get into like, 'Oh, I think we're better here and better there.' Let everybody figure that out as they watch the (game) tape from Week 1, 2 and 3. That's the way I look at that.”