- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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MOBILE, Ala. -- At 8:55, the official starting time of every 9 a.m. meeting in the NFL, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said, "Coaches, take a look around and see if we're missing anybody."
Gruden welcomed his South team to the Oakleigh meeting room, their oversized bodies spilling over the edges of hotel chairs made for CPAs and wedding guests. Gruden had the three team captains chosen Monday -- North Carolina offensive lineman Jason Brown, LSU defensive end Marcus Spears, and, representing the special teams, Louisville linebacker Robert McCune -- stand up and introduce themselves.
"I'm Robert McCune. I'm from Mobile, Alabama," he began, making sure everyone knew they were in his house.
And then, the Most Rev. Gruden of the First Church of Football began to speak. He challenged. He inspired. The intensity for which Gruden is famous powered up. He cranked the volume up to about eight on the dial, and went to work.
"I want to look sharp this afternoon," Gruden boomed. "Everybody in football will be there to watch you."
Gruden started out by showing big-time plays made during Monday's practice. He showed Matt Jones, the Arkansas quarterback who's trying to become a wide receiver, beating LSU cornerback Corey Webster to make a catch deep. He showed Alabama defensive tackle Anthony Bryant quickly penetrating through the line to make a stop for a loss.
"If you can do this," Gruden said, stopping and starting the video, "you can do this. You can play."
The coach moved on to show a one-on-one drill between Spears and Southern Mississippi offensive right tackle Jeremy Parquet.
"This is going to be the best drill we had," Gruden said, praising both players. "Every week, you're going to see a bitch at right tackle. Every week, you're to see a bitch at left end. We've got to guard one-on-one in the pass rush. Play it close. Play it right. Compete your [intimate body parts] off."
The team left for special teams meetings, and then the offense returned to the Oakleigh Suite for about 90 minutes devoted to installing more plays in the offense. The linemen stayed for the first 10 minutes to see a couple of new running plays, and then they left, leaving the head coach with the ballhandlers to go over passing plays.
"Paul Hackett ran a very similar offense to this my freshman year," USC tight end Alex Holmes said. "This is a very simplified version." (Coincidentally, Gruden hired Hackett on Monday as his quarterback coach).
Rev. Gruden began the call-and-respond method employed by preachers who want their congregations involved. Every other explanation, nearly every other sentence, Gruden used a variation of "Are you paying attention?" Sometimes he left it open-ended. Sometimes he called out a player's first name. Sometimes he made fun of the defense, their teammates, that they would be competing against in practice Tuesday.
There was, "Are you with me, Kay-Jay?"
"You guys feel me, right?"
"You dig me, Kay-Jay?"
"What I want here is route distri -- "
" -- bution," the wideouts responded.
"Hey, you come to play for the Bucs? You come to play for the Bucs, any of you?"
For 35 minutes, Gruden went over passing diagrams using the overhead projector. The last 40 minutes, Gruden showed video of the new plays as run by his Tampa Bay or Oakland teams, interspersed with clips of practice Monday, or of practice of the Senior Bowl team he coached six years ago.
That's all the time he had. Gruden wanted to have a 1 p.m. meeting prior to the 2:45 p.m. practice, but the North team had access to the meeting rooms after lunch. When he informed the team of that, he sounded crushed. But Gruden quickly redialed up the passion.
On one pass play, Gruden implored his quarterbacks to sell one route.
"If I'm the Georgia quarterback and I won 38 games in college," said Gruden, cheating David Greene out of four wins;
"I'm taking a seven-step drop -- "
Here Gruden dropped back from the middle of the room to the doorway.
-- "and when I come out of it, my shoulders have an upward tilt and I'm thinking [deep]."
He looks downfield, out the first-floor meeting room window.
"Even if it's not there, I want everybody to think I'm throwing [deep]. If it's not there, then I throw the smash," Gruden said, looking to his right and mimicking a shorter throw to the middle of the meeting room.
"As you take the next step," Greene said after the meeting, "it's the little things like that that you have to pick up. We're learning what it's like in the NFL. The speed of the game has definitely changed. Everything is going faster. Learning from Coach Gruden, that's one of the tougher offenses to learn, from what I've hard. It's a great system, a lot of high percentage passes."
Gruden never stopped teaching, only once acknowledging that his motor is running at a higher rpm than most.
"You guys know how much coffee I drank today?" Gruden asked. "Can you tell?"
Because they have only a week to prepare, the Senior Bowl allows no blitzes and no players in motion. The offense usually comes out with an advantage, even if defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin stood in the doorway, teased, "We will be ready for all of this, men," and stepped out quickly. Gruden never acknowledged him.
When he began showing video of poor plays that they made in practice Monday, Gruden greased it this way.
"Some guys make a mistake and go in the tank," Gruden said. "I've got coaches that I've worked with that have a poor game, get criticized by the media and go into the fetal position. There are some guys who make a mistake that don't give a [colorful noun]. Some guys make a mistake and they never make it again. It's the damnedest thing. This is what we're after. On Friday, I want to be able to say, 'This guy never made the same mistake again. I want him playing for the Bucs.'"
At 10:45 a.m., Rev. Gruden concluded the service without a hymn, released the ball-handlers to their coaches and strode out the door. Running backs coach Art Valero said the South players got the full Gruden.
"That is him," Valero said. "He didn't change anything. He didn't pull any punches. He'll get a guy and make some comment about him. At times, it's pretty funny. Players love him."
Holmes came out of the meeting and said that he and his fellow seniors needed to understand one thing.
"The coaches expect guys to realize that we're not student-athletes anymore," Holmes said. "This is our job. There's a fair amount of studying and time to be allotted. I've had a defensive head coach (Pete Carroll) for four years. It's a little different to have the head coach running your meeting. Coach Gruden has a good feel for it. He seems like a great guy. I like that intensity. It gets guys ready and fired up."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jon Gruden's Senior Bowl sermon baptized the South squad into the world of professional football.