Literally and figuratively, the Buccaneers are taking the wraps off defensive end Da'Quan Bowers.
Lingering concerns about Bowers' surgically repaired right knee have eased 10 games into his rookie season. The second-round pick out of Clemson is poised to make his first NFL start Sunday at Tennessee if Michael Bennett's groin injury does not improve.
"The Bucs took a chance on me and a lot of people didn't think I'd make it to the first game," said Bowers, who led the nation with 15.5 sacks as a junior last season. "I didn't know what to expect, but I knew I would be fighting for playing time.
"They told me it would be a slow process, basically that it would be slow enough to hack me off. And that's exactly what it did. I wasn't getting a lot of reps and I was frustrated, but a few weeks ago they told me it's time to step it up."
Bowers flashed his potential throughout Sunday's 35-26 setback at Green Bay, general manager Mark Dominik said.
"He's obviously been somewhat limited in his snaps, but he's coming off his best performance," Dominik said. "We saw a lot of strength, explosion and really good bend coming around the corner. Da'Quan showed effort, hustle and pursuit."
Now, Bowers is determined to show teammates and skeptical fans he deserved to be selected with the 51st pick in the draft.
"I think he has a bright future," Bennett said. "He works hard, he's powerful and he's a special kid. I like his work ethic and he's always asking me questions. If takes awhile for any rookie, especially one coming off knee surgery."
After shattering Clemson's single-season sack record of 9.5, set in 2005 by Gaines Adams, who was a first-round pick of the Bucs in 2007, Bowers had to wait until midway through the second round of the draft to hear his name called.
"It's been a tough road, but I'm actually able to do what I'm capable of now because I'm fully healthy," said Bowers, who has 15 tackles, a fumble recovery and five quarterback pressures through his first 10 pro games. "I finally felt like myself in London last month. I still have lots of learning to do, but I feel more comfortable.
"It was all a bit overwhelming at one point in time, but I got used to it and I made adjustments."
Bowers rushed off both edges at Clemson, but the Bucs project him on the left side, opposite fellow rookie end Adrian Clayborn.
First-year defensive line coach Keith Millard, a former Pro Bowl defensive tackle, has worked extensively with Bowers, who is often matched up against right tackle Jeremy Trueblood in practice.
"He's a good player," Trueblood said of the 2010 ACC Defensive Player of the Year. "Bowers is young and he's got plenty to learn, but the kid's got some good moves and he's getting better every single week."
Bowers is part of an inexperienced unit that includes Bennett, Clayborn and second-year defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price.
The growing pains have been evident, with the NFC's lowest-ranked defense on pace to post only 24 sacks.
In time, the Bucs believe they will field a dominating front.
"That feeling is definitely in the air," Bowers said. "We've got so much talent on our line. We've got a lot of ability to do some special things and bring back that old-school defense in Tampa, but it takes a while.
"Hopefully this offseason we get some camaraderie with each other and get some things established."
BUCS AT TITANS
Sunday: 1 p.m.TV: Fox, Channel 13