Starting lineup appears to be set
Rookie strong safety Huff last piece of the puzzle
By Phil Barber
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

NAPA - He avoided any admission until the evidence became overwhelming.

When Derrick Gibson returned from an illness and rookie Michael Huff was still running with the first team at strong safety - even in Sunday's exhibition game against the Eagles - coach Art Shell stopped pretending the position was up for grabs.

"I would say that he's on the way to being the guy, if he continues to grow as he's growing," Shell said of Huff.

Huff's elevation was the final element of a somewhat startling situation. Just 2 weeks into training camp, all 22 of the Raiders' starting spots seem to be stabilized.

There is a question at wide receiver. But Jerry Porter's status might rely less on video evaluation and more on psychoanalysis. If he decides to buy into Shell's program, he'll probably start over Doug Gabriel.

Otherwise, it's hard to find a pitched battle. The Raiders don't have guys alternating snaps, like Brad Badger and Ron Stone did at right guard last year. There's no rookie breathing down the neck of an established veteran, as tight end Courtney Anderson did to Doug Jolley in 2004.

Just don't suggest that the starting lineups are penciled in for Sept. 11. Not only does that ignore the reality of injuries, it would suggest that the starters can afford to be complacent, and no one wants to toss that one out there.

"You try to settle things before you come to camp, but within every situation the guys are competing, and they know that," Shell said "But is it public? No, it doesn't have to be public, as long as we know they're competing."

"There's definitely competition going on," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "There's no job around here that's set, except a couple of spots that will be that way until the end of time. ... And I don't think anybody's resting on their laurels."

One explanation for the stability is Shell's willingness to stick rookies in the starting lineup at an early juncture. It took Huff a few days to bump Gibson. But Paul McQuistan and linebacker Thomas Howard were on top when camp began. They didn't have to spend their summer easing out veterans (Badger and Danny Clark, respectively).

The question is, what's better for team morale? Spotlighting a couple of intense battles to whip up the troops, or removing uncertainty by settling on first-teamers early? Free safety Stuart Schwei-gert prefers the stability.

"I think it's good," he said. "(Otherwise), so much tension builds up: I've got to make every play in practice, I can't mess up, the coaches are watching. If I make a mistake in practice, my job's going to be taken.

"That's how it kind of was the last two years. Guys didn't have the opportunity to make plays on their own, because they're so worried about making a mistake."