Coach Lovie Smith knows he has a special talent in linebacker Derrick Brooks
In four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lovie Smith has seen his players earn seven Pro Bowl berths.
That's a remarkable number for any position on any team. Since Smith is the coach of the Bucs' linebacking crew, you can rightfully assume that Tampa Bay has recently had one of the best sets of linebackers in the game.
Of course, as Buccaneer fans, you also know the punch line. Veteran stalwart Hardy Nickerson has left the team as a free agent and taken four of those seven (and five overall) Pro Bowl bids with him.
If you thought that would tear the core out of the Bucs' linebacking corps, you're wrong. Without minimizing the impact that Nickerson had on Tampa Bay's defense, Smith is certain his group will remain one of the team' strengths. Nickerson brought two things to the team's linebackers: talent and leadership. Tampa Bay thinks it is ready to replace both.
"There's a core…our same core of players are all back," said Smith. "Replacing Hardy…you can't replace Hardy in a lot of ways. But in some ways you can. We're bringing in a young player in Nate (Webster) that we think we'll eventually be strong. We brought in Jamie Duncan to eventually take Hardy's place, and now it's his time to actually do it. We think Derrick (Brooks) will be a strong leader."
Smith looks around his daily meeting room and realizes that six of the seven players that made up the team's linebacking crew are still on hand. That group includes Brooks, who may be the game's top outside linebacker, Duncan, who appears to be a ready replacement for Nickerson, and Shelton Quarles, a potential star in the making. Overall, Smith sees a youthful squad that appears to be brimming over with talent.
"We like the athletic ability that we have at the three positions," he said. "There shouldn't be a drop off. There can't be a drop off."
Smith knows that 2000 is no time for a letdown, with the Bucs poised as one of the NFL's top Super Bowl threats and the defense still the team's vanguard. His is no false bravado; the Buccaneers truly are brimming over with talent at linebacker. In a continuing series of pre-camp position coach interview, Buccaneers.com spoke to Smith about each player in his group. What follows is Smith's analysis of his charges, in his own words.
Derrick Brooks: "Great player. Great ability. Smart player. A play-maker. We could go on and on, but to me he's what you mean when you're looking for that ideal outside linebacker, an athletic small guy with power. Like I said, I could talk on and on about him. He's just a special player, and he should take over the leadership role from Hardy Nickerson this year.
"Oh, sure (he can improve). He had four interceptions last year and he should have had about 10. We missed some plays. He's getting himself in position to make plays, and this year if he just finishes a couple more of them, he'll be fine. He's on progress. This is his sixth year, and he has gotten better every year. We don't see that being any different this year."
Don Davis: "Don Davis has primarily been a special teams player for us and has done very well at that position. But he's really working on being a complete linebacker, and being one that can be counted on to actually play the linebacker position (in a game). He and Jeff Gooch will be battling to see who backs up Derrick Brooks at that position. We're looking at him to possibly give us backup help at one of those outside positions. He's in the same mold as these other guys we're talking about: athletic, quick, a good player."
Jamie Duncan: "He's had the advantage of being here and watching Hardy for the last two years. He's learned a lot, and stepped in, of course, two years ago when he had to play.
"Jamie's our most powerful guy, probably. He's a little shorter, but he's over 240 (pounds). So he's got a little bit more bulk to him. He's a Vanderbilt grad, a smart player who knows the position and always seems to be in position to make the plays. We look for him to step in and fill that role. We're expecting good things from him this year."
Bobbie Howard: "Bobbie just came back (from the NFL Europe League). We got a chance to see him last year and he did some good things, but it was just kind of a numbers game for him. He had a good season in the Europe League. He's a smart player, a Notre Dame grad, so he can pick up the defense. He's an athletic guy, a small linebacker like all of us. He should give us help. He'll be competing with Nate Webster for that backup middle linebacker position behind Jamie Duncan."
Antony Jordan: "You know, we worked Antony out last year, and he had good size and good speed and ability for a big guy. He's the biggest linebacker we have. He's more along the lines of what most people consider a linebacker to look like. He started off a little slow when he first got here, but he's really picked up the pace lately. I'm anxious to see what he can do in camp, because he's got some ability. He's just got to do it now. We've been in shorts but it's time to put on the pads and see what he can do. He's an outside guy; he'll be competing with Shelton Quarles and Al Singleton at the 'Sam' (strongside) position."
Jeff Gooch: "Now, Jeff Gooch has played a lot of ball around here. Last year, Shelton Quarles beat him out, but he hasn't dropped off. He's a player that could end up being a starter for us this year. He's been in there for us before and we won with Jeff as a starter. If he ends up being a starter this year, we feel comfortable with him. He was a safety in college, so he has that kind of ability. He can run, he's strong, he's a smart player, too.
"I'm saying the same thing about most of these guys. Derrick is a special player, of course, but the rest of them are all very good players. Jeff should be a factor for us again this year. Right now, he's listed behind Derrick Brooks, but he can play both sides."
Shelton Quarles: "Shelton has worked his way up. He came in and worked out (in 1997) and was real impressive in his workouts. He's a dominant special teams player for us, and last year he broke into the starting lineup. I always felt like he had a chance to be one of our starters, but he was injured in camp the first two years he had a chance to compete for it. He came through with a good preseason last year.
"He's a guy that I think can really make that jump this year. If we played a game right now, he would come in in nickel situations along with Derrick Brooks. I think he's the guy that has the closest talent to Derrick Brooks in our group. He's smart, a Vanderbilt grad. He's the only guy that we have that can play all three positions and do them well."
Alshermond Singleton: "We've liked Al since he got here (in 1997). He plays over the tight end better than anyone that we have. He's just a true strongside linebacker, the best one that we have in terms of playing over the tight end. He uses his hands real well. He needs to improve with his pass coverage, which he should do. He's coming off an injury, but right now he's going into preseason drills at full speed. Last year, he split time on first and second downs with Shelton, and we don't see that changing."
Shawn Stuckey: "We worked Shawn out, and he'll fit right into our crew. They all kind of look alike. He's been a good special teams player, he's fast. He had a good NFL Europe season, especially with the special teams. He should really be a factor there, then just try to work himself into the rotation. He'll start out behind Shelton, Al and Antony Jordan, so he's going to be a Sam linebacker initially and we'll see what he can do."
Kinnon Tatum: "Kinnon's probably the smallest guy we have. Right now, he'll line up at the Will (weakside) position behind Derrick, Jeff Gooch and Don Davis. Again, he's an athletic guy, a Notre Dame grad, smart player. He's going to have a great camp to get into the picture, but that's where we see him right now."
Nate Webster: "Nate is impressive. He was just a dominant college player, made plays left and right. Since we drafted him, he's put in more time over here (at team headquarters) watching tape than anybody. He's trying to get himself in position where he can help the team this year. As a linebacker, once you know what you're doing and you have a feel for it, you have a chance. If things go the way I see it working out, he'll be in a position to back up Jamie this year and kind of go from there. He's an impact player, an impact hitter. He just plays hard and brings a lot of good things to the table. We're anxious to get him out there on the field and see what he can do."
If Smith claimed to be anxious on Friday, he certainly seemed quite calm. As much as you would expect a coach to deliver a glowing report of his unit, Smith's claims were delivered rather matter-of-factly, without embellishment. Apparently, that comes from knowing he has the talent on hand to get the job done.