TAMPA — As much as he tried Friday, Carl Nicks couldn’t camouflage his enthusiasm.
Tampa Bay’s Pro Bowl guard appears poised to play his first game in 11 months Sunday when the winless Buccaneers travel to Gillette Stadium to face the unbeaten New England Patriots.
A toe injury that required surgery shelved Nicks for the final nine games of last season, his first year in Tampa after signing as a coveted free agent from New Orleans. Just as Nicks was being eased back onto the field in training camp, a MRSA staph infection last month stalled his progress and kept him inactive for the first two games.
“It’s been a long time, I just hope I’m not too rusty out there,’’ said Nicks, who has never taken a regular-season snap with fellow Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph. “If nothing new happens, no setbacks, then I think I’m good to go.
“I’m hiding it well, but I’m very excited.’’
Gabe Carimi, who has filled in for Nicks at left guard, missed practice this week due to illness and coach Greg Schiano said Carimi won’t dress against New England.
“If (Nicks) is like he is now, I suspect he’ll play,’’ Schiano said Friday. “But we have to wait and see how everything responds.’’
Nicks, 28, was considered an elite guard in his four seasons with the Saints and Tampa Bay averaged 26.3 points per game with him on the field last fall.
In the nine games Nicks missed, the Bucs averaged 22.8 points.
“He’s definitely a guy that gives a boost to our offense,’’ said Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin, who struggled in Week 1 against the Jets before rebounding with 144 rushing yards in a 16-14 loss to New Orleans. “Carl’s an awesome run blocker as well as a pass blocker and he is also a leader on the line.’’
Nicks isn’t exactly easing into the lineup this week.
Lining up across from Nicks will be veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the anchor of New England’s line and a defensive captain for the past five seasons.
“I’ve played against Wilfork four or five times in my career,’’ Nicks said. “He’s a really nice guy off the field. On the field, he’s a Hall of Famer, a good athlete for his size (6-2, 325) and a complete defensive tackle.’’
Tampa Bay’s offense could use a boost Sunday.
A year after finishing with the No. 9 attack in the league, the Bucs have scored only three offensive touchdowns during a pair of gut-wrenching setbacks. The Jets and Saints won with field goals in the closing seconds.
“No one wants to be 0-3 and we’re hungry for our first ‘W,’ ” said Nicks. “It feels really good to get back to work and feel like you’re contributing to the team and not feeling useless.’’