Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner told a story about his relationship with linebacker Adarius Taylor in his press conference Wednesday. It came on the heels of a question about losing linebacker Kwon Alexander to an ACL tear this past Sunday and how comfortable Duffner is with Taylor filling in.
"Adarius Taylor is young man that I had the privilege to get to know during the pre-draft preparation when he was coming out so I had kind of struck up a relationship with him, " Duffner mentioned when asked about what kind of player Taylor is. "He made a serious mistake and opted to sign with another team as a free agent. Lo and behold though, not too long later I wound up here at One Buc Place and he was in the room so I've known him for a while."
A couple things to take away from that quote. One, Duffner deadpanned the serious mistake comment, before adding a chuckle himself, hinting at a little antagonistic side he has that we'll get to later. Two, this isn't the first we've heard of Duffner's ability to create genuine and long-lasting relationships with his players or potential players. While it may seem like a pretty big coincidence that Duffner would end up coaching a player he had a prior relationship with, because of the man and coach Duffner is, it couldn't be further from it.
In fact, multiple players in the Bucs' linebackers room had a prior relationship with Duffner before walking into AdventHealth Training Center.
"He called me before the combine, asking normal stuff, 'How you doin?' asking about my family and what not," linebacker Devante Bond said of his first conversation with Coach Duffner. "He said some things like he had watched all my film and thought that I was a good player."
Bond went on to describe that more antagonizing side of Coach Duffner mentioned earlier. Duffner apparently razzed him a little bit on a play Duffner had noticed on tape where Bond got beat by an oversized player. It was all in jest with Bond insisting no one got the best of him.
"We just laughed about it," Bond recalled. "Then I saw him at the combine, I had a meeting with the team. Oh, and I talked to him at pro day."
Duffner was with Bond every step of the way, right up until he was drafted out of Oklahoma in the sixth round by the Bucs. When asked if there was anyone else that took the time to call and establish a relationship with him, Bond shook his head.
"No, not like that," he said. "[Duffner] was the only coach who called and did that."
For a player like Bond who was drafted, that prior relationship isn't exactly necessary. Sure, it's nice and comforting to have some familiarity with your soon-to-be coach but players don't exactly choose where they get drafted. There's very little recruiting or courting period with guys that enter an organization through that route. It's a complete contrast to someone like linebacker Riley Bullough, who ended up signing with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in 2017 out of Michigan State. His decision to ultimately sign with the Bucs among other offers is one that he attributes to the relationship he had with Duffner. Bullough said that Duffner would call him every week leading up to the combine. Yes, every week.
"I hadn't met Coach Duffner yet so it was mainly just to start a relationship," Bullough said of the conversations. "I was telling him all about my training. He was kind of telling me about the guys that they had here and just telling me that he wanted me to become a Buccaneer, whether that was being a draft pick or undrafted. I think honestly that was a big part of me choosing to come here as an undrafted free agent."
These relationships don't happen by accident. They are the result of Duffner taking a real interest in his players and prospects. For linebacker Kendell Beckwith, a third-round pick out of LSU who again, didn't have a choice to where he was drafted, Duffner connected with him on a unique hobby. See, Beckwith's self-admitted first love isn't football. It's horses. He's been riding since he was two years old, before he started playing football. It was something Duffner keyed in on and made sure to ask Beckwith about during those initial conversations.
"The first time I was contacted by him, I was in Pensacola doing my training and my rehab and stuff," Beckwith said of his initial connection with Duffner. "He called me before I went to the combine and we talked a bit. Saw him at the combine and finally met him, got a chance to talk a little bit. He kept asking me about the horses and things. I never had an official meeting with him but any time he saw me he asked me about the horses and asked me questions about riding and different questions about horses."
It's not an act, either. Duffner takes the time to learn about his players because he believes it makes for better overall teams. It's part of how he coaches and how he approaches life in general.
"I spend time with players, I believe in that," Duffner has explained. "I think the more you know your players, the more they know you, not just who you coach individually. I think you miss the boat if you don't get involved with your players as a team offensively and defensively. I believe that's how you can impact a team as people."
From the sound of it, and what his current players have to say, Duffner seems to be succeeding in his objective.
"Coach Duff, he loves you as a player but also just as a person," Bullough said. "Having that relationship with him outside of football first I think was really important."
"He's always been honest and caring," Beckwith said of his coach. "It's genuine. I feel like I do a pretty good job in knowing when someone is genuine and has a good heart. He's definitely one of those. He's someone you can listen to about everything, take heed to and kind of look up to the way he handles himself."