Watch: Gerald McCoy on rookie DT Akeem Spence
After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in the first round in 2010, they immediately used their next pick, a second-rounder on UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price. Those two, plus 2009 third-round pick Roy Miller, formed the core of the Buccaneers' interior-line group in McCoy's rookie season. Journeymen DTs Ryan Sims and Frank Okam passed through at different times of the year, but there wasn't a true established veteran at that position for the Bucs in 2010, nor at defensive end for the most part.
Now that McCoy is headed into his fourth NFL season – and coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance – he recognizes that situation as a problem. And he doesn't want to see it repeated.
The 25-year-old McCoy isn't exactly a grizzled vet. He's seen a lot in his three years, though, overcome a significant amount of adversity and, as he says, managed to learn the tricks of his trade on his own. He would have preferred a veteran mentor back in 2010, however, and he intends to be just that for such young Buccaneer linemen as Akeem Spence, William Gholston and Steven Means. It doesn't hurt that the charismatic McCoy has the veteran presence of a player five years his senior.
McCoy knows that as skilled as a team's coaches can be, sometimes the best way to transfer knowledge is from player to player. He wants that process to begin immediately for Spence and company so that those young players can reach their potential faster.
"I didn't have [any players] to show me how to rush the passer, nobody to tell me how to play the run," said McCoy. "I never got that. Going into my fourth year, I still haven't gotten it, so I had to learn as I went. Everybody expected this, this and this, but nobody was here to help me. I just so happened to pick it up. Well, with these guys, with all the potential talent that they have, I want to give them what I didn't have, which is a vet that knows the game and how to play it – right now, instead of them having to learn as they go."
Obviously, a young player is going to be more likely to listen to a veteran teammate he respects. McCoy could probably garner enough respect to get his teammates' ears simply from his accomplishments and his driven approach to his craft, but he has looked for other ways to establish a bond. During training camp, that has included him on occasion carrying in the shoulder pads of the younger Bucs. That's the opposite of what one usually sees at the end of practice, when the rookies at each position are burdened down with extra equipment. McCoy recently impressed Spence, a fourth-round pick out of Illinois who could win the starting nose tackle job, by lugging in his pads on a hot morning.
"Me, I'm a teammate and you've got to learn to serve before you can lead," said McCoy. "If a guy, a young guy, could see that one of the vets or one of the captains can go to a rookie and pick up his pads, it'll show him that, 'Well, who am I to say I'm not going to do it?' You lead by example. More than just talking about it, you've got to go do it."
The equipment-carrying tradition and an occasional fight song at a team gathering is the extent of what Buccaneer rookies are asked to do in deference to the veterans. Head Coach Greg Schiano has made it clear that any attempts at real hazing wouldn't be tolerated. On the other end of the spectrum, though, he's pleased to see McCoy taking actions to bring the younger players into the fold.
"These guys, we need these rookies to do things that we want to do this year, and I don't know who they're going to be, but we're going to need some of them," said Schiano. "It's like we did last year, so the sooner they become part of us [the better]. And that's what our guys do – they welcome them with open arms. I think it's good to have tradition, like the pads or singing, but that's where it stops. A guy like Gerald McCoy understands that we need these rookies and I think he's just trying to make them feel like they're a part of the solution."