ST. PETERSBURG — En route to going unbeaten and clinching an early spot in the inaugural UFL Championship Game, the Tuskers have been a team of opportunists.
"Every week it's someone different stepping up," Coach Jim Haslett said.
Through the better part of the first four games, offensive players did most of the stepping. That's what made Claude Wroten's stroll into the spotlight in Friday's 27-24 victory over Las Vegas so satisfying.
In a back-and-forth shootout that featured nine lead changes or ties and more than 800 yards of total offense, the former LSU defensive tackle and first-team All-Southeastern Conference standout made a difference in the title-clinching win at Tropicana Field when his Tuskers teammates needed him most.
"That's where you want to be," Wroten said. "You want it all — win or lose — on you."
After Matt Bryant kicked a 40-yard field goal to give Florida its three-point cushion with 4:38 remaining, the Tuskers (4-0) had to do something they'd not done very well all night: slow down a Locomotives offense that had rolled up a season-high 410 yards, including plays of 71, 60 and 33. Those numbers were quite a contrast from two weeks before, when the Tuskers limited the Locos to just 263 yards in a 29-15 win at Vegas.
"In the first game, we had like six sacks, but we were blitzing and doing things and really coming from different ways," Haslett said. "This time, they took care of that."
Until late, that is. Until Wroten summoned that power and playmaking that once had him projected as a first-round draft pick before a run of poor decisions undermined his NFL future.
"I'm going to be back in the NFL," he said. "I'm not worried about that at all."
If he puts more plays on tape like the 4 ½ tackles, two sacks and forced fumble he showed against the Locos, Wroton will get his chance with the big boys again. The second of those takedowns came after quarterback J.P. Losman had driven Vegas to the Florida 35, but Wroten's sack took the Locos out of field-goal range with 20 seconds to go.
Losman's next two snaps were incompletions, with Wroten and the Tuskers' front four pushing and collapsing the pocket, forcing bad throws under pressure.
"The guy is extremely athletic," Haslett said of Wroten, who won a national title at LSU with then-coach Nick Saban. "He had a first-round grade coming out."
That was before a Louisiana policeman pulled him over for speeding and busted Wroten for marijuana possession. The timing could not have been worse. The NFL combine came a month later and Wroten failed a drug test.
Wroten still was taken in the third round by the St. Louis Rams, where the 6-foot-2, 295-pounder played 26 games during the 2006-07 seasons. When Wroten, 26, again tested positive for marijuana in May 2008, he became a third-strike offender of the NFL's substance-abuse policy and was suspended for the entire '08 season.
Though eligible for reinstatement for the '09 NFL season, Wroten instead opted for a comeback trail through the UFL backroads.
And with no regrets, so far.
"I came [to the UFL] to get my head on straight and I love the way things have worked out," said Wroten, who will enjoy the next five days (and this week's open date) before reporting back to Orlando Friday, returning to practice Saturday and readying for a Nov. 12 game against the New York Sentinels at Harford, Conn. "I'm ballin' now. We're all ballin' now."
Chris Harry can be reached at email@example.com.