Brad Culpepper’s son, Judge, follows in his father’s Bucs footsteps

TAMPA ― The future of the Bucs at defensive tackle looks a lot like its past.

There is a player with a familiar last name getting ready to put his hand in the dirt at the same position for the NFL team his father is most identified with.

But Judge Culpepper was just focused on reaching a highly unlikely goal for almost any college football player. The fact the Toledo defensive tackle is getting a chance to begin his pro football career as an undrafted free agent with the Bucs is an unplanned bonus.

“The goal was the NFL, but the goal wasn’t playing for the Bucs,” Culpepper said. “That would never happen. The chance of you playing for the team your dad played for ... that doesn’t happen in the NFL. It never really even crossed my mind, and then for the stars to align like that it was amazing.”

If you are a Bucs fan, have lived in Tampa Bay or needed an accident attorney in the past few decades, you know his dad, Brad Culpepper.

He played nine seasons in the NFL with the Vikings, Bucs and Bears. Suffice to say, his best six were spent with Tampa Bay from 1994 to 1999. Before that, he was an All-American for the Florida Gators, married the homecoming queen, Monica, and had three very successful kids who were all accomplished athletes at Plant High School.

Judge’s older brother, Rex, played quarterback at Syracuse. His sister, Honor, is a senior point guard on the basketball team at NYU who interned at CNN.

Judge starred at tight end and on defense at Plant and spent his first three collegiate seasons at Penn State. When he was considering entering the transfer portal a few years ago, he had a conversation with former Plant head coach Robert Weiner, who had just completed his first season as Toledo’s quarterbacks coach.

“I was visiting with Brad and Monica and Judge was home on a break, and Judge was just hanging out and they asked, ‘What do you think?’” Weiner said. “I gave them some possible options, and I wasn’t really pushing the envelope. And I don’t remember whether it was Judge or which one of them, but they said, ‘We’re serious. Judge would come play for you again. You wouldn’t be his position coach.’

“It kind of sparked it that night, and it was kind of like throwing it out there as a lark, but we were all thinking about it. We were like, ‘Why would this not be an option to go to a place you’re with somebody who you have a relationship with?”

At first, Toledo didn’t have a scholarship for Culpepper, but they didn’t hesitate to make an offer when one became available.

“I had some other irons in the fire,” Culpepper said. “Then I got with (Toledo) Coach (Jason) Candle and their defensive coordinator and the defensive line coach, and it kind of took on a life of its own. They said, ‘We wanted to offer you,’ and I ended up going there because I didn’t want to stay in the portal too long.

“It seemed like a good opportunity, and I had somebody that was kind of close to home on the offensive side of the ball. I went up there and ingratiated myself in spring ball and was a starter ever since. It was definitely a great decision.’’

About the same time, former Plant quarterback Tucker Gleason transferred from Georgia Tech and became Judge’s roommate.

Growing up, Judge didn’t talk much about defensive line play with his father. Brad Culpepper was an intelligent player who lined up next to Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Sapp for five seasons. Thirty-three of his career 34 sacks came while playing for the Bucs.

“Back in the day, (Brad) had forgotten more football than I had ever experienced,” Judge Culpepper said. “When it came to defensive line play, he would be at Level 5 when I would be at Level 2 or 3. It’s good that now that I’ve gotten better and better at football, I can understand so much more than he can offer me.

“Growing up, he didn’t really push me into becoming a defensive lineman. That was something I kind of grew into. He always wanted me to be a quarterback, which was fun for a while, but I kept getting bigger and bigger and I was like, ‘I kind of want to play defensive end,’ and he said, ‘All right.’ He’s always been a cerebral guy as a football player, so it’s good to have him in my corner, for sure.”

At Toledo, Culpepper quickly earned a starting job. He had 43 tackles, three sacks and two breakups in 2021, then 44 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble the following season. He was great against the run, ate up double teams and created rush opportunities for his teammates.

Last season, he took his game to another level. Of his 38 tackles, 10½ were for loss, including nine sacks. He also forced and recovered a fumble.

Culpepper credited his offseason training and more advanced film study.

“I was better keyed in for every game,” he said. “The year before, I was focused on doing my job and things weren’t really falling my way. Once you can do your job and you know what the offensive line’s job is on most plays, you’re able to play just one step faster and able to make that split-second decision and you’re able to make the play.”

Last month, Culpepper received an invitation from the Bucs for a workout day with college prospects who played high school or college ball locally. He impressed coaches, including co-defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers.

“We played Florida when I was at Tennessee, and his dad was playing there,” Rodgers said. “It so happened the guy who coached his dad coached me the next year at Tennessee. Judge was here on our Tampa Bay day, so I got to be around him a little bit.

“We were thinking he was going to get picked (in the draft), but luckily he was there for us. We really wanted him coming off the Tampa Bay day and studying him a little bit. He had nine sacks and comes from a great family and is just a tremendous kid. I’m curious to see what he can do.”

The numbers work for Culpepper sticking with the Bucs. Start with his contract. He received a $25,000 signing bonus and $75,000 of base salary guaranteed for $100,000 in total guarantees.

What’s more, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Culpepper is capable of playing defensive tackle or defensive end in Todd Bowles’ 3-4 scheme. The Bucs have mostly veteran players in those positions such as Greg Gaines, William Gholston and Logan Hall, who has underperformed in his first two NFL seasons.

“(Culpepper) will have a better chance of making it in the pros, because the pros based it upon measurables, too, but performance is preeminent in the pros,” Weiner said. “He’ll have an opportunity. From the son of a guy who was beloved by fans? Before I ever knew who the Culpeppers were, I was sitting there in the stadium cheering on Brad and the plays he made.”

If the NFL doesn’t work out? Well, even post-career, you have to take into account his name. He’s named after his great grandfather, John Brower Culpepper, who was a judge in Florida.

“With a name like Judge, I think I’ll probably do something in the legal realm,” he said.

As for the NFL? Well, Judge-ment day is almost here.

“When you’re a little kid, everybody thinks you can play in the NFL,” Culpepper said. “People don’t realize how hard it is. Once you get to college, you realize this is an insurmountable task I have to attack. Then you stack the days, and thankfully it worked out. It’s just another opportunity, another hill to conquer, and hopefully I can do it. ... I’ve definitely been thinking about it, and now it’s here.”

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