The top shots from the Buccaneers' OTAs.
You can call him Jack or you can call him Sam. Devante Bond just wants to hear his name called on Sundays.
Bond is a second-year linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a 2016 sixth-round pick out of the University of Oklahoma. After transferring to Norman from Sierra Community College, the California native was a part-time player in the Sooners' defense in 2014 before taking on a bigger role the following fall.
As a senior, he played the "Jack" position in the Oklahoma defense, which often put him on the line of scrimmage on the tight end's shoulder, ready to rush the passer. The Jack position also involved some coverage responsibilities, such as on curls in the flat. In 2015, Bond started five games, played in nine and contributed 43 tackles, three sacks, seven tackles for loss and two passes defensed. Despite his relative lack of Division I experience, Bond was taken 183rd overall by the Buccaneers, who thought he could contribute right away on special teams (as he did in Norman) and potentially develop into a starting strongside, or Sam, linebacker.
Those plans were delayed, however, when Bond pulled a hamstring during the preseason and then made it worse in what proved to be an ill-fated attempt to return. The Buccaneers put him on injured reserve and he spent the season recovering and taking mental reps from the sideline. Bond came to every meeting and every practice, absorbing what he could, and even hoped he might get onto the field before the season was over. He felt ready to go near the end of his rookie year but the Buccaneers chose to use their one "designated to return" I.R. option on running back Charles Sims.
"Late in the season I knew I was good," said Bond. "I was thinking about coming back that whole time, so the whole time I was getting my mind ready just in case I could. We had other guys on I.R. It's a crazy process; you don't know what's going to happen. I was definitely ready to come back but it's okay."
In fact, it might have been better than okay. The Buccaneers had veteran Daryl Smith starting at the Sam spot, so Bond likely would have been his understudy anyway. He still managed to get a lot out of his rookie season, even if it was frustrating to be on the sideline.
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"I figured that last year," said Bond. "It sucks because, being a competitor, you want to be out there to play and compete and try to help the team the best you can. But I just took it as a blessing in disguise and kept learning, took everything I could out of it, watched the vets and [learn to] be a pro. [I was] definitely involved, all the meetings. I kind of just took everything, just observed and learned everything I could."
Bond can tell the difference. He got a large number of reps during three weeks of OTA practice, much of it as the first-team strongside linebacker in a group with Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. He also got some exposure to the nickel and dime packages and to the middle, or Mike, spot. Thanks to last year's mental head start, all that work didn't make his head spin.
"I'm picking it up a lot quicker," he said. "Last year, especially in the beginning, you're in a fog. The learning curve, you've got to get past that. Definitely everything's picked up quicker; it's like second nature now. I had a learning year last year so now everything's just all coming together for me. The game's slowing down for me, so the game's going good."
The major difference this spring as opposed to last fall, and the thing that is doing him the most good, is getting that onfield perspective of what the offense is up to.
"It's one thing to know the scheme, but you've got to know what's coming at you. I know my job; it's more about figuring out what the offense is trying to do to me."
Bond's most obvious path to playing time is to win the Sam position, as David and Alexander aren't likely to come off the field often. He'll get competition from such holdovers as Cameron Lynch and Adarius Glanton, and perhaps Canadian import Jeff Knox. At some point, 2017 third-round pick Kendell Beckwith will also be in the running, but Beckwith is currently working on coming back from his late-2016 knee injury at LSU. The good news for Bond is that the Sam spot he's working on is starting to look a little bit like his old Jack position, primarily because the Bucs' coaching staff sees some pass-rush potential in the young linebacker.
"I definitely like rushing the passer," said Bond. "It's definitely something I'm really comfortable with, especially because in the past in college that's what I did a lot. It's a little different scheme here, but definitely that's something I'm really used to and like to do."
The Bucs run their base defense out of a 4-3 alignment, with four down linemen, while the Sooners defense is a 3-4. However, when the Bucs go to their "under" front in the 4-3, the Sam linebacker commonly walks up to the line on the "closed" side, where the tight end is set up. In that respect, Bond would be very much in the same role as he was as Oklahoma's Jack, standing up on the edge of the line as a potential pass-rusher.
First things first, Bond has to earn his spot on defense, either as a starter or some kind of rotational contributor. After the unfortunate turn of events that cost him his rookie season – at least in terms of playing on Sundays – it's a bit of good fortune that, upon his return, he steps right into a very real opportunity to win a starting job. It's up to him to take advantage of it.
"Nothing's given, nothing's given, nothing's given," Bond repeated. "I knew I had it coming but I've got to earn that job. It's not all said and done. I've still got a lot more work to do now, coming into preseason and coming into camp. So I've just got to keep doing what I do, worry about what I need to worry about and I feel like that will take care of itself."