LB Geno Hayes has skills that fit the Bucs' system and the perfect mentor in Derrick Brooks
When Derrick Brooks – a speedy, playmaking Florida State linebacker and northern Florida native – arrived in Tampa in 1995, there was a gaping hole in the lineup waiting for him.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had essentially played safety Barney Bussey as their third linebacker in 1994; Bussey was listed as the right linebacker on the box score but internally they called him a "Buc-backer" and the defense was something of a 4-2-5 hybrid. That was Floyd Peters' final year as the defensive coordinator and the 4-2-5 novelty wasn't going to continue in 1995.
When Geno Hayes – a speedy, playmaking Florida State linebacker and northern Florida native – arrived in Tampa a few months ago, he joined a Buccaneer linebacking corps that not only has three entrenched starters but also runs deep with interesting young players. Just a year ago, the Bucs spent third and sixth-round picks, respectively, on linebackers Quincy Black and Adam Hayward, and the promising Antoine Cash returns in 2008 after missing last season with an injury.
Brooks did indeed start the first game of his NFL career at right linebacker (with Bussey moving back to strong safety) and, barring three games in 1995 when the defense opened in a nickel package, has started every Buccaneer game since. Hayes almost certainly will not follow suit when the 2008 season begins.
That doesn't make the Buccaneers any less excited to have him on board.
"He can run, he can hit and he's 20 years old and he's had some real good experience at a high level, at a place where they're relatively famous for producing linebackers," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "So we're excited to put him in the same room with Derrick and Barrett and Cato and see what happens."
Hayes, of course, won't be able to escape his connection with Brooks, even though it would be unfair to expect any young player to duplicate what the 10-time Pro Bowler has accomplished. And, in a way, he doesn't want to. Comparisons may not be fair at the moment, but companionship sure is, and Hayes knew he had a very useful friend waiting for him in the Bucs' locker room.
"I know him pretty well," said Hayes of the man who made jersey #10 at FSU famous before he donned it the last three years. "We had talks during my time in college and we had talks after I declared. Through the whole Combine we had a little talking here and there. Then in the draft and after I came here we've had a couple talks. He's been giving me good pointers and helping me out here and there."
For those who know Brooks, the consummate NFL professional, the core advice he's giving his fellow Seminole is not surprising.
"'Just be humble and stay focused,'" quoted Hayes. "' Stay mindful of the situation that you're in right now.' Whatever I need help with, ask him. If I need help learning some of the schemes, just ask him; he'll tell me everything I need to know."
Brooks spent his rookie season under Defensive Coordinator Rusty Tillman, but Tillman departed after 1995 with the firing of Head Coach Sam Wyche. Tony Dungy took over in 1996 and brought in Monte Kiffin as his head defensive man. The rest is history, much of it written tackle after tackle by Brooks himself.
Kiffin is the longest-tenured defensive coordinator currently in that position in the NFL, and his mastery of the Cover Two defense helped the Bucs become the league's most consistently excellent defensive team in the league. There's not likely a player who has that system absorbed more fully than Brooks.
That's a fabulous store of knowledge for Hayes to tap.
"I'm leaning on him a little bit – him, Cato, Barrett Ruud, all the guys who really know the scheme can give me insight on what's going on," said the rookie, who believes his time at FSU will help, too. "Tampa basically runs the same defense that Florida State runs but it's just different terminology and different ways of running it that you have to learn. It prepared me in a good way.
"They're telling me right now that I fit very well into their schemes and I'll be mostly a Will 'backer like Brooks. I'll switch around to Sam here and there but mostly I'll be a Will 'backer with this team."
Of course, there is still that matter of the crowded depth chart in front of him. The Bucs currently have 12 linebackers on the roster, including three interesting players they signed consecutively in early March – Leon Joe, Teddy Lehman and Matt McCoy – and another veteran who has extensive starting experience with the Buccaneers in Ryan Nece. Linebackers, especially young and fast ones, often make up a good part of a team's special teams nucleus, which should help all of the candidates, but it's still hard to imagine the team devoting more than seven or eight of their 53 spots to that one position.
That's exactly what the Buccaneers wanted, though – as much competition and depth as possible at every position. If the math doesn't seem like it works in the above paragraph, well, it's too early to really add anything up.
"We want to go into training camp and have a mentality that you'd better have seven or eight or nine pretty good linebackers," said Gruden. "We play four preseason games. We saw a couple of our guys go down last year in the preseason, guys like Antoine Cash and [Sam] Olajubutu, before we played a game. There's a lot to be decided yet."