Offensive lineman Aaron Stinnie stood ready for his moment, and it finally came in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers biggest game of the season. Thus far, at least.
A one-time prospect/depth player with the Tennessee Titans, the offensive lineman got the first start of his NFL career last Sunday. He was the Buccaneers’ right guard in their NFL divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints.
“You always want to prepare yourself like you’re going to be the starter that week so that there is no surprise or shock to yourself that moment you have to go in,” Stinnie said last week. “I’ve been preparing for a while.”
Stinnie signed with the Titans as a rookie free agent in 2018 after going undrafted out of James Madison University. He spent the entirety of that season on the roster but appeared in just one game (he was inactive for 14 and did not play in another). Midway through 2019, he was cut after three more appearances and a total of 14 snaps on offense.
Tampa claimed him off waivers, and he has been with that franchise ever since. Through the end of the 2020 regular season he had notched 32 snaps on offense in six appearances for the Buccaneeers.
His time arrived when Alex Cappa, the starter at right guard for the past two seasons, broke an ankle in the wild card round.
“As long as you stay ready, you never have to get ready,” Stinnie said after learning he got the start.
Stinnie helped the Buccaneers score 30 points against an aggressive Saints defense. The Tampa Bay offensive line held the Saints’ defensive front to one sack and one tackle for loss. In the run game, Stinnie and the other Buccaneers’ blockers opened enough holes for the backs to run for 127 (more than 30 yards above Tampa Bay’s regular-season average) and a touchdown.
“My boy did great out there,” running back Ronald Jones II said this week. “That game, that’s just a testament to his hard work and his preparation, things like that.”
“...Coach always says: ‘Next man up.’ You never know when it’s going to be, but when you’re opportunity comes you’ve got to keep it moving. I think he did a great job.”
In a way, Stinnie’s entire football career prepared him to step up in any big moment. He started 42 consecutive games while in college spanning from 2015-17. Along the way, he helped JMU lead the CAA and rank 15th nationally in scoring with 34.3 points per game.
While in college Stinnie was also named Associated Press first team All-American and first team All-CAA Offensive Lineman. And by his senior year, he was recognized as JMU’s Offensive Lineman of the year twice.
Though JMU is an FCS school, Stinnie still played in a slew of big games during his career, including a 2016 National championship game in which the Dukes beat Youngstown State University 28-14. The next season he was part of an effort that produced 11 points in the final 2:08 in a 31-28 victory over Weber State in an FCS quarterfinal matchup.
“The biggest game I ever played in was probably either the (National Championship) or the Weber State game,” Stinnie said.
Until now, of course.
Stinnie may not have had a bevy of NFL game reps heading into the NFC divisional round. But he approached every week as though he was playing, choosing to stay mentally tough because he knew his moment was coming eventually, he said.
“Those mental reps, picking the starters’ brains as they are out there going, definitely helps out,” he said. “Asking them questions here and there about what they are seeing out there and what is happening definitely builds up and helps out.”
His consistency in college groomed him to keep his head down and work once he got to the NFL. His years as a backup in the league allowed him to prepare and learn from those who are ahead of him on the depth charts.
Those mental reps finally turned into physical ones against the Saints. And though they were a result of someone else’s misfortune, the reserve offensive lineman got his long-awaited opportunity, and he didn’t disappoint.
“It was like mixed emotions when it happened,” Stinne said. “I hate to see (Cappa) go down, but I want to go out there and do him proud. I just want to help put my hand in the pot and fill in.”