When 90 players are running around on a football field in training camp, it’s tough for anyone, even the head coach, to know who everyone is by name. And so it was with Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter and defensive linemen DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward this past preseason.
“Davonte and Channing Ward, those were two of those guys that were just filling out the roster back when we had 90-something guys here and no, I didn’t know their names,’’ Koetter said. “Like I said, they were just to guys filling out the roster.’’
Nowadays Koetter can’t fill out a lineup card without writing down the names Lambert and Ward. Injuries along the Bucs defensive front have forced both to step into roles they were not expected to take on, and for Lambert at least, that has earned him a rather special name.
“I would have to say that he’s right up there as one of the biggest surprises on our team,’’ Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said of the undrafted free agent out of Auburn. “In fact, he may be the biggest surprise (on the team).
“I remember when we got into training camp, I really liked his attitude. He was very focused and he’s learned how to be a defensive lineman in the NFL very quickly. He’s cross-trained (as both an end and a tackle) and that gives us a lot of flexibility.’’
The Bucs can obviously use that flexibility. With Robert Ayers out they’ve lost one of their most versatile players, one who was working as a right end in the base defense and often moving inside to tackle in obvious passing situations.
Now the Bucs are leaning on Lambert to fill that role. He has started two of their last three games at right end and moved inside to tackle on passing downs, often yielding the right edge-rush duties to Howard Jones or rookie Noah Spence. So far, he’s handled the assignment well.
Lambert has recorded seven tackles in his three games of work and he forced a key fumble early in the fourth quarter of the Bucs 17-14 win over the Panthers two weeks ago. Ward, meanwhile, has five tackles. It’s no wonder the Bucs consider both pleasant surprises.
“They’re playing more than was ever expected and you couldn’t be happier about the effort they’re giving,’’ Koetter said. “Now, they’re still learning. They’re going against professional offensive linemen and they’re learning some good lessons.
“But all you can do is coach the guys that you’ve got and all you can ask is that they try to do it the way that they’re coached to do it and that they give it good effort and they’re doing that.’’