Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Inner Focus

Rod Marinelli has molded the Bucs’ defensive linemen into one of the league’s best units by making sure that is not their focus

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Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinelli (right) believes that DE Steve White (right) will compete hard to hold on to his starting job

What more could this unit have to prove? It is the dominating front wall of perhaps the NFL's best defense over the last three years. It boasts the league's reigning defensive player of the year. It is deep, with starting-caliber players sharing time. It earns magazine covers, nickname searches and opponents' respect.

So what's left to prove? Everything.

That's the way Tampa Bay Buccaneer Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinelli approaches it every season. Marinelli is the quintessential training camp coach. He keeps his unit moving at a brisk pace by revving his own motor high throughout practice. Considered one of the league's better teaching coaches, he never stops shouting encouragement or instructions. He relates well to his new players who are trying to earn roles.

But most of all, Marinelli treats camp like what is purported to be: a competition for jobs.

In reality, Marinelli's deep unit would appear quite set. The entire starting four – ends Chidi Ahanotu and Steve White and tackles Brad Culpepper and Warren Sapp – return, and none slumped in 1999. The two most-used subs – end Marcus Jones and tackle Anthony McFarland – are young, skilled players good enough to start on many teams. There are other returning talents the team likes – James Cannida, Tyoka Jackson and John McLaughlin – plus a group of eager first-year players – Carl Bradley, Chartric Darby, Aaron Humphrey, Damonte McKenzie and Mawuko Tugbenyoh.

However, Marinelli consistently makes this team realize its potential as one of the league's best defensive lines by forcing them to approach camp as if jobs were at stake. What they do not need to waste their time on, according to the Bucs' fifth-year DL coach, is predictions.

"All my efforts, everything I do as the coach is to try to get our focus away from anything and everybody else," said Marinelli. "You just say, as we go into camp, that each guy has to go win his job. I try to get the focus back on that as fast as I can.

"That's one thing we've been very fortunate to have – competition. The last three years, these have been competitive camps for jobs. Jobs changing here and there, roles changing. You can go into camp saying, 'We're going to make the Super Bowl,' and 'We're going to do this and that,' but it's all talk. When you go in saying, 'I've got to win my job,' then you come in with a different attitude. Then, when all the dust settles, you try to become a unit."

The building blocks for that unit are plentiful and strong. Sapp garnered the league's top defensive honor and his interior running mate, Brad Culpepper, continues to be the unsung hero of the Bucs' defense even if he is no longer overlooked and underrated. White wrested the starting RDE job from the since-traded Regan Upshaw last year, but he'll have to withstand a similar challenge from Jones in camp 2000.

We could go on, but we'll leave that up to Marinelli instead. Continuing a series of pre-camp position rundowns, Buccaneers.com caught up with the coach at the team's headquarters on Monday. The following are Marinelli's thoughts, in his own words, on each of the players he will guide through camp.

Chidi Ahanotu: "He had another real good offseason, coming off what I thought was an outstanding season. I think everything's kind of status quo with him, which is good.

"He had a ton of pressures last year. The thing we've been working hard on is taking a certain percentage of those and getting sacks and forced fumbles. That's the area I can see improving this year, statistically, but everything else is great.

"Oh, boy. If you watched tape, you saw him a lot. Playing the run, rushing his tail off. He was close all the time; we've just got to convert some of those close ones into sacks. He had, I think, three intentional groundings (forced), and those can go sack or no sack. Then he had one against Brett Favre that should have been a sack…they had it replied and he still was down, but they didn't give him the sack. There's four sacks for him right there. But he had the type of year where he was around the quarterback all the time, coming off the year before where had 10 or 12 sacks. But he's more important than just that, as far as how he hustles and how he plays the run."

Carl Bradley: "I don't want to get overanxious about somebody until I see them in pads, but with everything he has done in the offseason so far, he's got a chance to be pretty good. So I'm anxious to see him get the pads on and get out there, because I think he's got some stuff.

"He's got a good motor, physical…I think he's going to be very physical. He's just like the other guys there (at that position). He kind of fits in the mold of what we do around here, so I'm real anxious to see him play."

James Cannida: "He's going into his third year, and he's a good player. He's just got to maybe step it up one more notch because he's in a tough competition. It's a heavy group this year, good players, so it's a tough spot to crack. But he's got the talent to do it. He's gotten himself into good shape this offseason. He's down to about 290 (pounds), which is the perfect weight for him to play at."

Brad Culpepper: "It's kind of like Chidi – every year he gets a little bit better. He works hard and he's had a great offseason again. He's just a productive football player. He goes out and produces every year, and we certainly expect him to do the same this year.

"No, he's no underrated player…he's just a ballplayer. We all know what he is – he's a good football player. I think everybody knows that now. He just goes out and does his job every game."

Chartric Darby: "I haven't even met him yet, but I've heard a lot of good things about him. The personnel department told me that he's a high-motor, high energy guy, an under-tackle type. I'm really anxious to meet him. I think he's coming in tomorrow, so I'll get a chance to get to know him a little bit."

Aaron Humphrey: "We'll have to kind of wait and see. Again, I thought he did several good things, and he's a very hard worker. We've just got to see him in pads. He's not a burner or an overly athletic end, but he's physical and strong mentally, so he's got a lot going for him."

Tyoka Jackson: "I think Tyoka had a great offseason. He's been in that weight room every day, running and lifting. That's something he's always had – boy, he's on a mission. Again, his strength is having the ability to be interchangeable. He can do a lot of different things for us. We're going to start him out at the end position and see if he can win a spot there, but we'll always get him inside some to keep him sharp. He's going to go into camp, as usual, ready to battle."

Marcus Jones: "Oh, man, did he ever (come on last year). I think he's going to keep moving in an upward direction. He'll go over at that right end position and compete with Steve (White), and it should be a war.

"He's got the ability, one of the few guys we have other than Warren, to power a guy. He's a big, strong guy who's got enough movement now that he can get inside or outside, too. He's got the full gamut of rush technique now."

Anthony McFarland: "I feel like I'm repeating myself, but that's how I feel about these guys. I think he is just a super player. His production and technique are starting to match his athleticism. When they all come together totally, which I know they can, he's going to be special. He's a real quick, talented guy, smart, who's excited about getting into games."

Damonte McKenzie: "He works hard. He fits our group, which is what I want. He's a good worker, smart, good guy, and he seems to have a little quickness to him. The issue is whether that will show up in camp, which I think it will."

John McLaughlin: "His biggest thing is going to be avoiding injuries. He's missed some practices recovering from injuries, so I haven't really had a chance to see him go all out. He's got the stuff, but it seems like just when he's ready to turn the corner, something will happen. A heel, a neck – something that keeps him out. At our position, you just can't be missing practice. We're constantly building.

"He's got to get bigger and stronger, and he's still working on that. But he has so much natural speed. You can't believe how fast this guy is. Now his 'get-off' has got to match his speed. His get-off isn't as good as his speed, so he's no different than anyone else I have right now at getting to a spot. If he gets the get-off, then he's got a chance to be special."

Warren Sapp: "The best thing that he's doing (at this point of his career) is being consistent. He didn't have a bad game last year. I don't think he had a bad practice. He just consistently gets better, and he has taken that to this offseason. This might have been the best offseason, conditioning and lifting, that he's had since he's been here. He's doing everything consistently. That's all we have to worry about: the next day. We still haven't tapped him. He's just going to get better."

Mawuko Tugbenyoh: "He's an undersized guy, shorter, but he was so productive in college. That's the thing we focus on now: production. Has your guy done it? This guy has done it as a rusher. He just has to learn some different things, some skill things, to be an accomplished rusher. But, boy, he's got quickness and he's smart."

Steve White: "It would have been neat to see Steve play the whole (1999) season injury-free. His first 2 ½ games last year, we started to see the player he can be. Then he gets injured and just got lost a little bit. Then, really the last three or four games, he was healthy again and he came around.

"He had a good offseason and he's healthy again. He responds to competition, which he'll get from Marcus Jones, so he should be primed for a good offseason."

The same appears to be true for the Buccaneers defensive line as a whole. Marinelli is going to make sure it stays that way.

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