Bucs’ Graham Barton will bring sound and fury at center

TAMPA ― Every play begins with the center, and it’s a good place to start when assessing the Bucs’ outlook this season.

It’s why Duke offensive lineman Graham Barton was selected in the first round of the draft and was the primary voice heard during rookie minicamp.

Barton spoke loudly in and out of the huddle, trying to identify defensive fronts and inspire his teammates when they put their hands in a pile as a group at the start and end of practice.

“Just trying to learn as best as possible. Obviously, just got here a couple of days ago, and they’re throwing a lot at us,” said Barton, who is making the transition to center from tackle, which he played for three seasons with the Blue Devils.

“You have kind of the whole day. It’s meetings twice a day, practice and walkthrough, lots and lots of reps, which is great for us rookies. Trying to use that to my advantage, improve, and sort of just build a bank of reps.”

More than that, Barton asserted himself as a leader of the offensive line, which is somewhat inherent with the center position.

“Football’s my passion, it has been for a long time,” Barton said. “Just adjusting to it being a full-time job, it comes with different things. There’s more time throughout the day, so how (you) fill your time productively is one of those adjustments. I think the biggest thing for me, especially being the center here at rookie minicamp, is just trying to get all five guys on the same page while also learning the offense.”

The Bucs focus this offseason has been on improving the league’s worst run game over the past two seasons. The loss of center Ryan Jensen in 2022 to what wound up becoming a career-ending knee injury and the retirement of guard Ali Marpet the same year at age 28 left a substantial hole in the middle of the line that’s never been filled.

Barton’s size (6-foot-5, 313 pounds) and sizzle (he plays with a nasty edge) are what the Bucs need to also calm the feet of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who spent too much time fleeing the pocket and ducking pass rushers.

New offensive coordinator Liam Coen is going to give Mayfield more opportunity to change plays at the line of scrimmage, and Barton will have to communicate that.

“Just learning the playbook, I think, is going to be the biggest thing for me,” Barton said. “Allowing me to play free, because ... the first couple of days you’re up there, you’re thinking so much. You’re thinking, ‘What’s this, what’s this?’ I’m thinking about what I learned.

“The more you learn and the more you get confident in the playbook and you get up to the line knowing exactly what you’re going to say, I think as you do that you’re allowed to focus more on your play and you can play more freely.”

Barton’s dedication never will be in question. Despite graduating with a degree in public policy, he chose to stay for the third and final practice of rookie minicamp rather than walk with his class at Duke’s commencement ceremony, saying the experience is “overrated.”

Barton knows he’s being counted on to be a difference-maker. “You don’t rise to the level of the game,” he said. “You fall to the level of your training.”

McClendon’s impact

The Bucs’ focus during free agency was on re-signing their own free agents, such as Mayfield, receiver Mike Evans and linebacker Lavonte David. But they made an addition to the coaching staff that has them excited.

Georgia’s Bryan McClendon, who was hired as receivers coach after Brad Idzik followed Dave Canales to Carolina, is considered a rising star in the business for his development of players. He coached receivers and running backs at Georgia and was an offensive coordinator at South Carolina.

“Me and Liam both found that very appealing and enticing, and it’s somebody who can really help him with ideas as well as coach a position,” head coach Todd Bowles said. “He coaches a lot of pro receivers in the offseason when he was at Georgia who came back to see him. Very bright. He hit it off with the rest of the coaching staff when he came in.

“Lucky to have him. Joy to have him. He’s a heck of a coach and a heck of a person.”

Joint practices

With only three preseason games on the schedule, the Bucs will continue their tradition of holding joint workouts. They will have a day or two of controlled practices before exhibition games Aug. 17 at Jacksonville and Aug. 23 against Miami in Tampa.

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