LB Quincy Black warms up before his first NFL start
Barrett Ruud had a team-high 178 tackles in 2008. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' other two starting linebackers combined for five.
Sunday's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys will double as the first career start for outside linebacker Quincy Black. Black emerged from a wide-open offseason competition to nail down the strongside spot; meanwhile Matt McCoy will open the game on the weak side. That was an unexpected change announced on game day; previously, it was expected that Geno Hayes would start, and it's likely that Hayes will still see plenty of action. He was pulled from the starting lineup because he arrived late to the stadium on Sunday morning. McCoy has previous starting experience with the Philadelphia Eagles but has never started as a Buccaneer.
The Bucs have been eager to get a look at some of their younger potential contributors, and nowhere will they get their wish more prominently than at linebacker.
The Buccaneers are very confident in their young linebackers, but is it a certainty that any of them will be an immediate hit in the starting lineup? Of course not. There's one way to find out.
"It's their turn," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Every once in awhile you've got to push guys into the fire. They've got to go out there and fight that fire off and put it out. Some of them will go out there and have a lot of success and maybe some of the others won't, and then we've got to find out how to deal with that. But for right now I'm excited to see those young guys. They went out in the preseason and handled it well and we're excited to see them in the regular season.
"We were very pleased with how the preseason went, the poise of the players, the development of a young team. Obviously we've got a long way to go and we're going to build blocks here throughout the season. This is a great start here and we're going to take it one game at a time."
Speed can sometimes make up for inexperience, and the Bucs' linebackers have that in abundance. Morris has emphasized fast and physical play since he took the corner office in January, and his linebackers gave him what he wanted during the August games. Of course, nobody played a full game during the preseason. The Bucs will use all of their linebacker depth on game days, but Black will still need to hold up for the full 60 minutes.
"They played fast," said Morris. "They played really fast and now we've got to go out there and maintain it throughout four quarters. If they can show they can do that, we should be pretty good on defense. We've got to limit the amount of big plays we give up, go out there and play fast, hustle and hit, and we'll have a chance."
The Bucs' young linebackers will open the season with a serious test, as the Cowboys bring a power rushing attack to Raymond James Stadium. Marion Barber is one of the league's toughest and most relentless runners and he can be very ably spelled by Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.
"We're really excited," said Morris. "Any time you get a chance to test yourself against some of the best in the business, and the Cowboys are that, it's a great test right out of the box."
Hayes is the only Bucs making their first NFL starts today, but there are three others starting for Tampa Bay for the first time: McCoy, QB Byron Leftwich and TE Kellen Winslow. The Buccaneers have announced their inactives for the game and there is just the one change to the starting lineup at linebacker. That means Leftwich will have the anticipated starting receivers — Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton — at his disposal. Bryant didn't play in the preseason due to early-August knee surgery and Clayton missed a significant amount of time will treating a hamstring strain cautiously. The Bucs aimed for a regular-season start for both and that goal was met.
Tampa Bay's eight inactive players are cornerback E.J. Biggers, linebacker Adam Hayward, OL Marc Dile, T Demar Dotson, TE John Gilmore, DE Kyle Moore, DE Maurice Evans and designated third quarterback Josh Freeman. Biggers, Hayward, Gilmore and Moore are out due to injury.
Freeman's designation makes second-year man Josh Johnson the other active quarterback for the Buccaneers on opening day. That may reflect Johnson's more thorough grasp on the offense; he's been with the team for two years and has been absorbing the Bucs' new offense since March.
The Cowboys have no announced changes to their starting lineup. Their eight inactives are S Mike Hamlin, LB Jason Williams, G Montrae Holland, C Duke Preston, T Pat McQuistan, WR Kevin Ogletree, LB Curtis Johnson and designated third quarterback Stephen McGee. Hamlin, Williams, Johnson and McGee were all on Dallas' Friday injury report.
The Buccaneers and Cowboys will kick off their seasons at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post a review of the first-half action at halftime and a detailed game story after the final gun. Fans can also get in-game updates with the Bucs' official Twitter feed, tbbuccaneers.