The last time Earnest Graham started a football game was Jan. 1, 2003. The University of Florida senior faced Michigan at the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
So at least Graham will be in comfortable surroundings when he makes his first NFL start at running back on Sunday.
Even though the Buccaneers signed Zack Crockett on Wednesday, Graham will start. After injuries to Mike Alstott, Carnell Williams and Michael Pittman, Graham represents the most experienced running back on the roster.
All 362 career yards of it.
“It’s been a while,” Graham said. “I’m up for it. I’m definitely up for it.”
This provides a window into the deep chasm between the experience of the running backs that are injured and the running backs that are left.
Since the start of the 2005 season, Alstott, Pittman and Williams have accounted for 3,385 of the Buccaneers’ 3,914 rushing yards.
Graham, a special teams ace who led the Buccaneers in preseason rushing three of the last four seasons, has 239 regular season rushing yards in that span. His 147 rushing yards this season, along with three touchdowns, are easily a career high.
The Bucs activated Darby for Sunday’s game against Indianapolis, but he didn’t have a carry. He’ll likely make his playing debut on Sunday.
Graham is a bowling ball-type back at 5-foot-9, 225 pounds. Quarterback Jeff Garcia praises the back’s ability to always be moving forward. He understands the offensive philosophy and can be used as a third-down back and in blitz-pickup situations.
“I’ve done quite enough of it,” Graham said. “I’ve seen it. I’m used to it. I can handle it.”
Most of those duties belonged to Pittman. They’ll likely fall to Graham and fullback B.J. Askew now.
Most people have probably forgotten that Graham left the Gators as their fifth-leading rusher with 3,065 yards. He also started three bowl games for the Gators, including the 2001 Sugar Bowl and the 2002 Orange Bowl.
But Graham earned his NFL job the hard way, starting as an undrafted free agent in 2003 and failing to make the active roster twice out of training camp before the Bucs signed him from the practice squad midway through the 2004 season.
At that time, the Bucs signed Graham to bolster a depleted rushing corps, but he never played.
This time he’s likely to rush 15-20 times as the primary ball carrier. He’ll also start against a Tennessee defense that is allowing about 74 rushing yards per game, third-best in the NFL.
He feels for Williams and Pittman. He called them brothers on Monday. But Graham knows this is his shot to show the Bucs he’s worthy of a larger role in the offense.
His audition starts Sunday.
“Do I like how this came about? No,” Graham said. “Those are my friends. But I have to be here for my team now. You always have to be ready. This is the audition. I’m sure they’re saying, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ I don’t want to be the reason the running game is no good anymore.”
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.