According to his position coach, LB Marq Cerqua has good instincts 'in space' but must learn the nuances of playing over the tight end
Marq Cerqua knew he was going to play in the National Football League when he was a small boy, watching Walter Payton run wild for the Bears.
It's everyone else that has been a little late on the realization.
Cerqua's mother, for instance, likely wasn't envisioning a pro football career for her son when she forbade him to play until the age of 14. And did the coaches at Furman, his first collegiate stop, see the NFL linebacker in him when they put him at fullback for two years? Not necessarily.
Even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scouts needed a second trip back to Carson-Newman, after Cerqua finished his 2000 season there, to suddenly decide he was a worthwhile prospect.
That's just fine, though, because Cerqua is here now, in the NFL, just a few short months from potentially making the Bucs' 53-man roster. Not drafted mainly because of his small-school background, he's once again playing catch up, but that's no worry because the one thing Cerqua has is closing speed.
When scouts break down a player that might be a borderline draft prospect, they look for one outstanding trait to focus on, a 'plus' skill. Cerqua's is obvious. He can run.
"You constantly see on film how well he can run," said Bucs Linebackers Coach Joe Barry. "And it's not like he's a little guy that can run – he's 225 pounds. Every day on film, I say, 'Holy smokes, look at number 58 running."
Cerqua's not little, but he doesn't necessarily have prototypical NFL linebacker size. In fact, the Indianapolis Colts, one of the other teams that courted him after the draft (Jacksonville and Seattle were also interested), wanted to move him to strong safety. The Bucs, however, have no reservations about his size and were the only team to fly him in for a pre-draft visit. That made Cerqua's decision on where to sign much easier.
"I knew coming from a small school it would be hard to get drafted, but my agent said I was a high-priority free agent for a lot of teams," he said. "The Bucs said my size was no big deal, and I thought it would be to my advantage to go somewhere and play linebacker, because that's what I've been playing the last two years. It will be hard enough to make a team at a position I already know, and it would be even tougher if I was switching positions at the same time."
Cerqua didn't make any Buccaneer hot list during the fall of 2000, but the team's interest was piqued after the regular season when scouts Ruston Webster and Dennis Hickey saw him perform at the Cactus Bowl, an all-star game. Impressed with Cerqua's speed and quickness, Webster and Hickey tipped off fellow scout Mike Yowarsky, whose region included Carson-Newman. Yowarsky went back for another look, liked what he saw and convinced the Bucs' personnel staff to move Cerqua up on the board.
Cerqua has looked very promising in the limited practices the Bucs have run so far for the rookies and Barry, in his first year with the team, gives the credit to Tampa Bay's scouting staff and their priorities.
"I couldn't care less how big a guy is," said Barry. "As long as a guy's big enough to protect himself and survive, I don't care how big he is. Look at Nate Webster. The guy's 225 pounds and playing middle linebacker in the NFL. He's got such great instincts and he's so explosive. I'm never going to say a guy can't play linebacker for us because he doesn't weigh enough. That's ridiculous. If a guy has instincts and can run, he can make plays for us.
"And Marq can run, that's the thing. As far as instincts, his head is still swimming a little bit, which is understandable. We've had less than 10 practices with the rookies. So he's still trying to pick everything up. But the thing you see constantly is that the guy can run. He can cover ground and he's a good athlete. He's got decent instincts in space."
Cerqua still has much to prove. At Furman, he generally played behind the line of scrimmage and attacked the ballcarriers as they came through the gaps on either side of the center. The Bucs have been working him out primarily at 'Sam' linebacker, meaning he'll have to play over a tight end on many occasions and will have to lock horns with some bigger players.
"That's something that he's never done before," said Barry. "He was a guy that was always in the A-gap or B-gap in college, directly behind the ball. Now he's got to get up on the line of scrimmage, and it's a different world for him. But he's made tremendous strides from the first practices we had in mini-camp to where we are today."
Those comments were shared with the interviewer, but Cerqua says he's also been getting positive feedback directly from the coaching staff.
"I think I'm doing pretty good," he said. "I've had good responses from the coaches. Everyone likes my speed – I get complimented on that every time we have special teams meetings. And I hustle. That's one thing I'll always do."
Cerqua knows, of course, that special teams often write the tickets for young players to make the team. So far, Special Teams Coach Joe Marciano has only installed punt and kickoff coverage, but Cerqua has been heavily involved in both. He's 'L5' on kickoff coverage, which means he lines up just to the left of the kicker. At that spot, he's likely to be asked to break up a wedge, kamikaze style.
One could certainly see Cerqua follow a similar path to that of Buc teammate Jeff Gooch, an undersized but fast linebacker who came out of Austin Peay, made the squad as a rookie, developed into one of the team's top kick coverage men and eventually earned some time on the starting defense. The first step for Gooch, you can see, was proving he could be a difference-maker on special teams.
"That's what my agent, the veterans, everybody has told me: work your butt off on special teams," said Cerqua. "I'm trying to be a special teams maniac. I just try to be the first one down there every time."
The coaches have noticed. Whether it's on kick coverage or in the cover two defense, Cerqua is compensating for lack of experience with speed and hustle.
"I'm making rookie mistakes, which is something I want to eliminate, but I know I'm going to make them," he said. "But when I do make a mistake, I'm going full speed. I might do something wrong, but a coach is never going to be able to say I wasn't going full speed, or that I was lazy."
According to Barry, Cerqua has the whole package when it comes to running: straight-line speed, re-direction, smooth turning of his hips, quick planting and driving back on the ball, et cetera. "He'll make a mistake, but he's so darn fast that he makes up for it with his speed," said Barry. "He's almost like a DB with his running skills. It's very natural."
Cerqua has been making up for lost time since he was in junior high. His parents wanted to be sure his bones were fully developed before he took the hits football promised, then he bounced back and forth from tailback to linebacker in the progression from eighth grade to JV to varsity. By his senior year, he was starting at both positions, and his dream of playing in the pros was holding strong.
"I've thought about being here (in the NFL) since before I even started playing football," he said. "I had to start out playing baseball, because my mom was scared I'd get hurt. But even then, I knew I was going to play in the NFL."
If he keeps picking up speed, he could prove himself right as early as September.