DETROIT — Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano was waiting when Eric Page jogged off the field in the waning seconds of the third quarter on Sunday. Page had just fielded a Lions’ punt at the 3-yard line and was slammed down after a two-yard return.
For Schiano it was a coaching moment, a fairly lengthy one-way conversation followed by a kind tap on the helmet.
“They kind of quick-snapped us on that one and the punt got back there fast,” Page said later in the cramped visitors’ locker room at Ford Field. “Coach just said I had to pay attention and be more focused. I have to be smarter in that situation, be aware of where I am, and let a ball like that just go in the end zone.”
A couple of minutes later, though, Page and all of his teammates were celebrating.
Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon executed a perfect play-action fake and got Page off the hook by throwing deep for Tiquan Underwood, who got behind the Detroit defense and sprinted away to complete an 85-yard scoring play that provided the winning points in a 24-21 Tampa Bay victory.
Page — the former Springfield High School and University of Toledo star — is finally right where he has long wanted to be, playing regularly in the NFL.
And other than the one ill-considered punt return, he had a pretty good day against the Lions as the Bucs won their third straight after an 0-8 start. His other punt return went for 17 yards, and two kickoff returns produced 83 yards.
Page ranks seventh in the NFL in kickoff return average (26.6 yards) for those with 14 or more attempts. As a punt returner he is averaging 11.2 yards and is one of only two players with 20-plus returns who are averaging in double figures.
“On the team right now, being on special teams is my job,” said Page, who has also seen limited action with four catches as slot receiver. “I feel like I can get better, that there’s nowhere but up from here. Obviously, everybody wants to play all the time, but this is my job now.”
Page accounted for 8,800 all-purpose yards during his career at Springfield, then rewrote the UT record book as both a receiver (306 receptions, 3,446 yards) and as one of the nation’s premier kick return specialists.
He left UT after his 2011 junior season to enter the NFL draft, but was not selected. After signing a free agent deal with Denver, the 5-foot-10 Page suffered a torn ACL in a knee during summer drills and was released. Tampa Bay signed him as a free agent in April, 2013, and technically this is his rookie season.
“I always had a goal in mind, and I went out and worked my plan,” he said. “I had family and good friends who believed in me and stuck with me. The process was hard [after the injury] but I followed the trainers and trusted in myself.
“I love being down in Tampa with the great weather and doing what I love doing. It didn’t happen right away like I’d hoped, but it’s happening now, and it’s starting to come together for the team. We just have to keep it rolling.”
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.