Geno Hayes has plenty of veteran Buccaneers to turn to for advice
A fast, athletic linebacker, originally selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft, wanders the halls of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' immense training facility. His head is spinning as he struggles not only to find his way around the building but also to find his way around the intricacies of the team's patented Cover-Two defense.
This sketch aptly describes rookie Geno Hayes, a Florida State product the Bucs selected with their sixth-round pick a month ago.
Rewind just a year, however, and it would apply just as well to Cato June, a free agent signee new to Tampa in 2007 after spending his first four seasons in Indianapolis.
Hayes, of course, is still finding his way, as he has spent little more than a week at One Buccaneer Place. June, on the other hand, now has a full year in Tampa under his belt and is much more comfortable in his surroundings, both on and off the field. That's good news for Hayes, as his veteran teammate knows exactly how to help him through the struggles ahead.
That June was ever uncomfortable in pewter and red is fairly hard to believe, considering the stat sheet he filled out in his first year as a Buccaneer. The former sixth-rounder saw action in all 16 games with 14 starts and finished third on the team in tackles with 120. He also tallied an interception, a forced fumble and two passes defensed. While the "Sam" or strongside linebacker position in the Bucs' defense sometimes limits the impact a player can make, compared to the more active middle and weakside spots, June found a way to emerge as a big-time playmaker nonetheless. The only disappointment in his first year as a Buccaneer was a foot injury that kept him out of the team's playoff game against New York.
June's success wasn't unexpected. His tailor-made Cover-Two skill set made him a primary target for the Bucs to pursue in free agency last offseason. Still, even though he excelled in a similar defense in Indianapolis for four seasons, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2006, June still experienced a few hiccups in his transition to the "Tampa Two."
"I'm so much more comfortable now," June said. "The mentality of the defense here, the terminology is big. Even though it's the same Cover-Two defense, learning the terminology, learning the different ins and outs of how the guys play, playing with different players – all of that is an adjustment. Going into another season after getting a year under my belt, I'm that much more comfortable."
Hayes, on the other hand, has only a handful of "organized team activities" to his credit and is fighting the uphill learning curve that every rookie endures. Not coincidentally, he mentioned many of the same obstacles that June dealt with just a year ago.
"It's been pretty hard because of the new terminology and that kind of stuff," Hayes said. "You have to get used to certain things and learn what you're supposed to do and what you're not supposed to do. It's kind of tough in a way, but then you also have to remember that you've got multiple plays coming at you every day that you have to learn and not mess up on. It's really difficult, but I'll learn."
Luckily for Hayes, he has a kindred spirit in June. As mentioned, they share sixth-round origins (June was drafted by the Colts with the 25th pick of the sixth round in 2003) and are similar in stature (Hayes stands at 6-1 and 226 pounds; June is 6-0 and 227 pounds). Now Hayes must match June in successfully adapting to the Bucs' defense.
"Defensively, we throw a lot at people," June said. "I felt the same way last year. I felt like I was learning a new type of defense, even though it was the same. So I imagine it would be similar for him. Just adjusting to the NFL play, how we practice, and learning a new defense and how our defensive coaches coach is a different adjustment. So we'll see. He'll get accustomed to it these OTAs, then he'll be ready come training camp."
Actually, Hayes is blessed with quite a few veteran linebackers that are willing to help him – and test him – along the way.
"I've been asking questions whenever I don't know what's going on," Hayes said. "[Derrick] Brooks, [Adam] Hayward, [Antoine] Cash – they'll come let me know that I did something wrong and I'll ask them about certain coverages and what I'm supposed to do in them. But they've been giving me pointers here and there and just making sure that I know. Sometimes they'll give me a pop quiz. Sometimes I know the answer and sometimes I don't. Like I said, it's kind of complicated sometimes."
Despite the initial swoon rookies usually experience when a thick new playbook is tossed in front of them, Hayes feels like he's already making progress and knows what he needs to master in order to continue his development.
"I'm picking it up pretty quickly," he said. "The coaches say I'm doing pretty well on it. We put in a new scheme each day and I mess up a couple times here and there, but then in the next couple days I fix the things I messed up on and just go from there. I've learned about four of the defenses right now, so it's going pretty well.
"I'd say the biggest thing is just getting comfortable in the defense, because you have to know what you're doing before you can really go out there and show what you can do. I would say that's the biggest thing – learning the defense. It's more about the mental part right now. It's just more of knowing what you've got to do, and once you know what you've got to do, your physical ability and everything is going to take over."
So while Hayes dives headlong into his playbook to try and memorize the ins and outs of the Buccaneers' defense, June is spending the offseason fine-tuning his knowledge of the scheme in hopes for an even more productive 2008.
June will be there to guide his young teammate along the way, and he knows that the remaining OTAs and upcoming training camp will be instrumental in the development of not only Hayes but the entire crop of Buccaneers rookies.
He also believes they'll be up for the challenge.
"They'll be ready," June said of his young teammates. "It's new for them, a new situation, new people, new coaches, so I think they're really just trying to get adjusted to how we do things. They'll fit in, and come training camp they'll be a little more themselves. They're really kind of holding back right now. We'll see the real rookies come training camp."