Buccaneers right tackle Demar Dotson never gave much thought to playing football for a living. He was a basketball player, after all, though admittedly not a very good one, particularly during his days at Southern Mississippi.
"I couldn't score too much, only about three points a game,'' Dotson said. "I could box somebody out and rebound a little bit, but that was it, really. I usually just went out there and knocked people around.''
So football coach Larry Fedora noticed. The one-time University of Florida and University of Oklahoma offensive coordinator had been hearing stories about Dotson's exploits on the basketball court and in the weight room, where Dotson was routinely maxing out at 350 pounds on the bench press, ever since he arrived on campus in December 2007.
Once Fedora got a good look at Dotson for himself, he didn't hesitate to give him what proved to be a career-changing opportunity.
"The football coaches there had been after me for a while,'' said Dotson, who has leapfrogged Jeremy Trueblood on the Bucs' depth chart at right tackle and will make his second start in as many weeks there Sunday at Dallas.
"They had been pleading with me, begging me to go out there and play, and I knew I had no real chance of ever going to the NBA, so I just sort of figured, 'Why not? What have I got to lose?' ''
It turns out Dotson had everything to gain. Though he'd never played football before, he showed plenty of promise while playing defensive end for the Golden Eagles and that was enough to earn him a look from the Bucs coming out of college.
It was Dotson's size and athleticism that caught the Bucs' attention. General manager Mark Dominik said he saw in the 6-foot-9, 315 pounder the potential to one day, maybe, play offensive tackle, so they signed Dotson as an unrestricted free agent.
The key, of course, was being patient with him.
The Bucs knew it would take years, not months, to get Dotson to the point where he could make a respectable contribution. It wasn't long, though, before their patience was tested.
With left tackle Donald Penn sitting out the 2010 offseason workouts and threatening to stage a training camp holdout, the Bucs threw Dotson into the lineup as quarterback Josh Freeman's blindside protector.
Dotson wasn't ready to make the leap and he said as much as the prospect of Penn missing the start of the season grew more likely.
"I don't even know if I'm a starting left tackle or not at this moment,'' he said at the start of the Bucs' mandatory offseason June minicamp. "If you ask me, I'm not. I'm working at it, but I'm looking forward to Penn getting here soon and protecting Josh's blindside."
Penn showed up a couple days into training camp, which put Dotson back on the developmental track, where he belonged. He finally got off that track a year ago, when he played in 13 games, including two as a starter.
Now, after a respectable preseason in which he started all four games in place of an injured Penn at left tackle, Dotson has earned the right to start ahead of Trueblood on the other side of the line.
"It's been a tough road, a tough journey,'' Dotson said. "And I've still got a whole lot more to learn. It's a process every day for me, to keep working, to never stop grinding.''
It's his technique and the details of the game that Dotson need to keep working on. The rest comes naturally for him. His quick feet and agility make him a virtual natural for the position.
"He has an athleticism to protect in the pass game,'' Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "He needs to improve in many ways, but we all do. I just feel he gives us the best chance to win this week.
"It doesn't have anything to do with what's going to happen down the road.''
Dotson isn't looking down the road. Coming off a game in which he had to take on Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, he's got his sights set on DeMarcus Ware, which is more than enough, he said.
"It took a lot of hard work for me to get to this point, but the hard work is really just beginning,'' Dotson said. "I have to continue to get after it every day so that I can show that I'm the best guy, not just this week, but for the next 14 weeks to come. That's what I'm hoping to do."