Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Gooch Steps In

In the absence of Derrick Brooks, versatile sixth-year linebacker Jeff Gooch moves into the starting lineup on the first day of camp

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LB Jeff Gooch (50) joined MLB Jamie Duncan (59) in the starting rotation for the first practice of training camp

As Jeff Gooch lined up as the weakside linebacker starter during seven-on-seven drills Monday morning, he experienced a sense of déjà vu.

In its humble beginning, confusing middle and suddenly critical ending, Gooch's 2001 offseason has been much like his first in the NFL, in 1996.

That year, Gooch finished an interesting collegiate career at Austin Peay University in which he at one point or another played outside linebacker, strong safety, free safety and even quarterback. As he came out of college following his 1995 senior season, he was seen as a defensive back by some teams, as a linebacker by others. He played safety in the Hula Bowl that January.

Yet, by the end of it all, he was in Tampa Bay's training camp as a rookie linebacker, undrafted but still promising. He then went on to impress with his special teams prowess and earn a spot on the 53-man roster that he has never relinquished. He even became the team's starter at strongside linebacker for part of 1997 and part of '98.

Now those days are back on his mind.

"This has been a lot like that," says Gooch, comparing the recent months of 2001 to his unsettled 1996 beginning. "This offseason has been up-and-down just like that one was."

How so? Well consider that it started with a struggle with a groin injury early in the offseason and continued shortly thereafter with the departure of his position coach, Lovie Smith, to the Rams, where Smith became defensive coordinator. Not long after, Gooch was reunited with Smith when the Bucs traded him to the Rams for a fifth-round draft choice. However, the trade was later nullified when Gooch, still not completely recovered from surgery, failed a physical with the Rams.

Upon his return, Gooch went back to work with the Bucs but wasn't 100 percent. Hernia surgery in early June, however, has alleviated his injury problem and he now feels completely ready for camp. That's good, because he's suddenly back in the starting lineup.

At least for now. With Brooks holding out, the Bucs opened their first practice of camp with Shelton Quarles remaining on the strong side and Gooch sliding into Brooks' spot. Since relinquishing his starting role on the strong side to Quarles in 1999, Gooch has been Brooks' primary backup, but the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker has not missed a single start since midway through his 1995 rookie season.

"Actually, I'm more naturally built for the Will (weakside) linebacker side. Some of the Sams (strongside linebackers) are bigger guys who take on the tight end a lot. I'm more of what you would call an 'undersized' linebacker who uses his speed to get by. So the Will linebacker spot is good for me, and to get those extra reps until Derrick's deal is resolved is good for me, too."

Gooch will certainly find himself involved in more snaps with Brooks out, but the Bucs haven't completely decided to stick with Monday's setup. At the moment, it was the logical move, simply bumping everyone up on the depth chart by one and leaving Quarles, who is a candidate to switch sides, in his familiar spot. However, the coaching staff is still working out a long-term solution in case one is needed.

"We haven't finalized it," said Dungy. "That's something we're still working through. If we move Shelton, which is one of the things that we've discussed, then that involves moving someone else over to that spot. So we're going to try to make sure we're set in our mind what we want to do before we do it. We'll probably know in the next day or so."

On Monday, it was a bit confusing to the uninitiated as to who was playing what spot. Quarles and Gooch frequently switched sides in the defensive alignment and each spent some snaps lined up across from the tight end. That was just a function of the defensive play call, said Gooch.

"When we're in the 'over' defense, it looks like I'm the strongside 'backer, but actually I was in the weakside spot," he explained. "It just depends on whether we're playing an over or under front."

That kind of jumping back and forth is nothing compared to what Gooch has been through this offseason, however. Rather than see it is an endless string of distractions, however, Gooch has found himself learning from them.

"This has definitely been a roller-coaster experience for me, not just Derrick not being here, but the ride I was taking before. I was here, then I went to the Rams and was up there for awhile, then I came back and then I had the hernia surgery. It's a crazy experience, but I think it made me a better person. I got to see another part of football that I hadn't been a part of, and that's a good thing for me."

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