TAMPA - The stars were aligning for Bucs receiver Maurice Stovall and seemingly spelled 'starter' entering this season.
Stovall played in nine games as a rookie last year. He started in Tampa Bay's final two games, catching three passes for 49 yards. Stovall worked hard during the offseason, showed improvement and was listed as a starter when Tampa Bay released its initial depth chart during training camp.
Then the word 'starter' mysteriously changed to 'substitute.'
Stovall, a third-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, has received limited playing time since the regular season began. In three games, he has no receptions and is not a regular part of Tampa Bay's receiving rotation.
As Tampa Bay prepares to play Carolina on Sunday, even Stovall is unsure why he has been used sparingly.
'To be honest with you, I really don't know,' Stovall said. 'It's not something I think about or dwell on or worry about. I'm worrying about the present right now. Getting ready for Carolina. That has been my focus all week and next week I'll be focused on our next opponent.
'I don't worry about what has happened in the past, or individually why I'm not on the field. I just worry about winning the game. That's my focus.'
Coaches say Stovall has not done anything wrong, and predict it will only be a matter of time before he does play. But nobody can predict when that may happen.
'Obviously, he has to play better,' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. 'He will play this week. We're going to get him on the field. Once again, the last couple of weeks we haven't thrown the ball very much. We haven't been in a lot of open-style formations with a 28-point lead and the kind of leads we've had.
'With that said, there will be some opportunities for Mo. He has to keep working and continue to get better like every other player on our team.'
It is those other players who seemingly are presenting more of an obstacle for Stovall than anything else.
Stovall backs up Joey Galloway, who is off to a great start with 13 receptions for 249 yards and two touchdowns. Ike Hilliard is firmly entrenched as Tampa Bay's starting flanker and Michael Clayton is behind him. With those players in front of him, Stovall finds himself trailing in the competition for playing time.
'He has to wait for his time,' receivers coach Richard Mann said. 'We have some good players here. If somebody isn't living up to their expectations, sooner or later, he will get his shot. Once you get your shot, you make it hard for us to take you out. That's what you have to do.
'Guys need to learn how to play. You can't put them in too soon. There are a lot of guys who had a lot of talent that have been put in there too soon and what happens is they never end up maturing.'
Stovall now finds himself learning a lesson in patience.
Every day after practice, Stovall and Clayton work on several drills together to become better receivers. Mann predicts Stovall one day will become a dominating NFL player, but believes the 6-foot-5 receiver is about a year away from making that kind of an impact.
Until those stars align, Stovall is content with his substitute role.
'I'm not going to cry over not getting playing time. That will come,' Stovall said. 'I don't say anything. I don't ask. We're winning right now. That's good enough for me.'