LB Antoine Cash has the skills to play at any spot in the Bucs' linebacker rotation
Antoine Cash did nothing last year, at least after August 18. This year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers think Cash can do just about everything.
It's shortchanging the 26-year-old linebacker, of course, to say he did nothing from the middle of August on. Anyone who has experienced the rehab process for a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knows it entails long and tedious hours of very hard work. Cash has now been through that process after rupturing the ACL in his left knee during the Buccaneers' preseason game at Jacksonville last summer.
But he did nothing on the football field after that point, which was a definite disappoint for a young player who had clawed his way from obscurity to the edge of significance the year before. An undrafted free agent with Atlanta in 2005 who came to the Bucs camp the next year with little fanfare, Cash was having an outstanding 2007 training camp before he got hurt. The Bucs had moved the former outside 'backer to the middle to start the offseason, and he was taking to it like a fish to water.
Nine months later, his knee healed and his drive to succeed intact, Cash is still a viable candidate to play middle linebacker behind starter Barrett Ruud. However, the Bucs, having significantly spiked the depth chart at all three linebacker spots, have now moved Cash back to weakside linebacker. That's not a knock on his work in the middle a year ago; rather, it's an indication that the team believes he can handle more.
"We moved him back to 'Will,' confirmed Linebackers Coach Gus Bradley, using the common football term for 'weakside. "He can play Mike [middle linebacker] for us, he can play Sam [strongside linebacker], so we're trying to put him in a position where we can use his great versatility. He can play any of the three positions and he's great on special teams."
Buc fans who remember Cash from 2006 probably picture a speedy defender who came out of nowhere to be one of the team's very best special teams players. He had 17 kick-coverage stops that year, including four in one game against Philadelphia in October. Less obvious to the fans but just as important to Buc management was Cash's work in training camp the following season, when he seemed to have the inside track to back up Ruud. Cash knew he was doing well in the middle, so it was particularly disheartening to see it end in a preseason mishap.
"Oh man, it was a killer," he admitted. "To be doing that good and then have that happen – it just brings you back to reality. But anything can happen any day, so you've got to work play by play and thank God for the days you have."
The Buccaneers subsequently leaned on veteran Ryan Nece to back up Ruud, and also signed long-time Philadelphia Eagle Jeremiah Trotter to provide depth in the middle. After the season, the team signed a trio of linebackers over the space of just a couple days, bringing in former Detroit Lion Teddy Lehman, former New Orleans Saint Matt McCoy and former Buffalo Bill Leon Joe. Lehman projects as the most obvious middle linebacker candidate.
Tampa Bay also drafted two linebackers – Quincy Black and Adam Hayward – in 2007 and another one – Geno Hayes – a month ago, meaning the position is, on paper, as competitive as it has been in a long time.
Cash, who could be cursing fate that a fluke knee injury transported him from a point in which he seemed secure to the middle of a spirited fight for jobs, is instead making the most of it.
"Competition only makes you better," said Cash, simply.
The former Southern Miss standout says his knee is back to 100%, and he's not limited in any way on the practice field. The Bucs are in the middle of a series of organized team activity days (OTAs) and Cash is trying to shine at Will the same way he did at Mike nine months ago.
"He was pretty natural at Mike," said Bradley. "But I think [Will] is where he feels most comfortable. I mean, he'll do whatever we ask of him but I think he likes the Will spot and he thinks it's a chance for him to move up the depth chart, compete with Adam Hayward and see what happens.
"His big thing is just staying healthy. He had a really good training camp last year and then he got injured. So now we're saying, 'Hey, we've got to see it, A.C. We've got to see you go through OTAs and training camp. We have faith and confidence in you that you can make it all the way through the season.'"
Cash is pleased to accept that challenge. In fact, he's just happy to be back in the middle of practice rather than spending most of his day with the trainers. The first few months of the rehab process were difficult for him, as he hadn't previously experienced that sort of injury. He learned that, as much as he wanted to push himself, it was important to understand what he could and couldn't do during every step of the process. He took it slow and stayed true to the trainers' advice.
Now that difficult time is behind him.
"It's just a blessing to be back out here," said Cash. "I come out here each day and try to get back into the flow of things, get used to catching balls, taking care of my assignments and doing my job. I'm just trying to do what I can do."
And it's fine with him if the Buccaneers expand their idea of just what it is he can do.
"Anywhere they want to put me I can play," said Cash. "I just do what they tell me to do. I think I can play any [linebacker] position."