TAMPA, Fla. — If Dallas Clark was looking for a challenge, he came to the right place.
Tampa Bay’s new 33-year-old tight end is back in a grassroots classroom after nine seasons on NFL grass, soaking up the principles of offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan while developing a rapport with Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman.
“It’s different, but it’s fun,’’ Clark said recently. “There’s absolutely no carryover from what I dealt with in Indy – and I didn’t think that was possible. It’s all fresh and it’s all new, which makes this camp pretty important for me.’’
After nine years in Indianapolis refining his vision to see the game through the eyes of former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Clark is starting over with a young 6-foot-6 quarterback who is still growing.
“Dallas didn’t have as many (offseason) practices as the rest of us, but he’s been an absolute stud,’’ Freeman said. “The guy loves football and it’s going to be great to have him here. I’m very excited to work with him.’’
Clark, who went from a walk-on at Iowa to an All-American in 2002 and a first-round selection by the Colts after his junior season, evolved into Manning’s trusty safety valve. He caught 100 passes in 2009 before a wrist injury and other health problems caused him to miss 15 games the past two seasons.
Indianapolis released Clark five months ago and it took 10 weeks before he spurned the Patriots and agreed on a one-year deal with the Bucs worth $2.7 million, with $1 million in guaranteed money. He was held out of the preseason opener against Miami, but is expected to play on Friday against Tennessee.
“He’s already made an impact,’’ Bucs guard Davin Joseph said. “To see him come in here and work as hard as a rookie, that’s special. The man’s playing with a purpose. A guy with his credentials could start to taper down at this stage of his career. Clark isn’t doing that …and it’s refreshing to see.’’
Clark signed with the Bucs on the same day the club jettisoned veteran tight end Kellen Winslow, who failed to live up to Schiano’s expectations of a “Buccaneer man.’’
“Dallas Clark has been a great teammate and leader for us, a huge addition,’’ general manager Mark Dominik said. “He’s out there helping our young guys get better. That tight end position is so important to a quarterback, and he runs such precise routes.’’
According to Sullivan, it’s critical Clark and Freeman think alike when a particular coverage scheme prompts an audible.
“Dallas has a great veteran presence, an ability to diagnose what’s happening around him,’’ Sullivan said. “He’s brings a savviness to the position and he’s done a heck of a job picking up a new language after being in a different system all those years.’’
It took a while for Clark and Manning to forge a meeting of the minds in the heat of competition.
“It’s all about repetition,’’ Clark said. “As (former Colts offensive coordinator) Tom Moore would always say, ‘You’ve got to fight boredom.’ That’s what the NFL is – doing the same thing over and over again until it’s automatic. It’s about a quarterback and a receiver constantly talking to each other, on the sideline and in the classroom.
“‘What are you seeing? Where do you want me?’ It’s more about Josh telling me. That’s the way it was with Peyton. I tried to see it one way and hoped we had a match, but if Peyton saw something else, I had to make sure I saw it the same way.’’
During a recent Bucs practice, former Colts president Bill Polian marveled at Clark’s knack for finding open seams and holding onto the ball, despite contact.
Polian said the Bucs were smart to add an experienced free agent like Clark, who joins 37-year-old safety Ronde Barber as the only players on a 90-man roster older than 30.
“He likes everything about football,’’ Polian said. “He loves going to meetings, he loves getting his ankles taped, he loves practice, he loves watching film. There is nobody who likes football more than Dallas Clark. He’s got a smile on his face every day and if he’s healthy, he’ll be a great addition for the Bucs.
“He’s a guy who will go down the middle and take the hit. If you drew up the ideal football player in terms of temperament, athletic ability, love for the game and work ethic, it’s No. 44. Central Casting invented guys like that. That’s what real football players look like.”