Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Middle Man

Haven’t heard much about Jamie Duncan this offseason? That’s a good thing

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LB Jamie Duncan sees the confidence that his teammates have in him

Haven't heard much about Jamie Duncan this offseason? That's a good thing

The Bucs aren't afraid to say his name, so you shouldn't be either. Hardy Nickerson. See? That didn't hurt, did it?

One of the best linebackers ever to don a Tampa Bay jersey, Nickerson made four Pro Bowls as a Buccaneer and is the team's all-time leading tackler. And he's gone.

Nickerson is with the Jacksonville Jaguars now and is expected to continue his brilliant career in fine fashion. But that doesn't mean the Buccaneers are worried, and you can chalk that calmness up to third-year player Jamie Duncan. Tampa Bay's ace in the hole has yet to rack up the same type of credentials, but he has earned all of what is necessary: the confidence of his coaches and teammates as the team's new middle linebacker.

And that's why you haven't heard much from or about Duncan this offseason. The Bucs' spring cleaning and remodeling project happened on the offensive side of the ball, where Pro Bowlers Keyshawn Johnson, Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel were imported and Les Steckel was brought in to run the show. On defense, only Duncan is projected as a new starter, and the team is so confident in him that the issue has been, well, a non-issue.

"Jamie's doing fine," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy on Monday, after the Bucs completed another summer workout. "He's a very, very sharp guy. He knows our defense real well. We're not going to fall apart because Hardy Nickerson's not here. That's on (Duncan's) shoulders. I think he feels that way and he's working with that in mind."

At 6-0, 242 pounds, Duncan approximates Nickerson's size, if a little bigger but a little shorter. That's not really crucial in the Bucs' defense, however, which prizes speed and quickness in its linebackers over bulk. Duncan possesses those qualities and is also a hard-hitter and an accomplished student of the game. What he does not have, yet, is Nickerson's dozen years of NFL experience, but even that does not worry Dungy. The Bucs' head man and defensive whiz thinks Duncan will run the defense smoothly.

"Jamie has never had a problem with that," said Dungy. "He's a very, very intelligent guy. Some of it is just experience and being out there, but he's not going to make many mistakes, I don't think."

Duncan believes in himself as strongly as his coach does, and he claims not to feel the pressure of being the only new piston in the Bucs' smooth-running defensive engine. "No, I don't," said Duncan. "I welcome this kind of challenge where I have to pick my game up and perform at another level to maintain our defense and get where we want to be. I'm looking forward to it, I welcome the challenge. And I believe my teammates have confidence in me, so that makes it even better."

That belief in Duncan's abilities springs largely from his forced apprenticeship in 1998, when he took over for an ailing Nickerson in the last third of the season and performed marvelously. While Nickerson battled a scary case of pericarditis (successfully), Duncan stepped in at middle linebacker for the last nine games and racked up 46 tackles and a pass defensed. More importantly, he played with a poise that belied his rookie status and ran the defense with aplomb. In fact, that unit actually improved from sixth in the league to second during his stint in the starting lineup.

Duncan barely touched the field with the starting defense in 1999, thanks to another fine campaign by Nickerson, but he did earn extensive seasoning in practice. Those that liked what they saw in '98 would probably settle for a repeat, but Duncan hopes to have improved in the interim.

"It's hard to say for the simple fact that I haven't been in there," he said. "I guess you can say you're a better player, but until you actually get on the field, you don't know. I practiced the same way, I worked the same way (in 1999) as I did when I started those six games. Hopefully, I've gotten better. We'll find out soon enough."

Dungy was less equivocal on the issue of Duncan's improvement. "He didn't get the opportunity to get playing time in '99," said the head coach, "but he's definitely a much better player than he was his rookie year."

He is also now a more critical part of the Bucs' near future, and so, despite the lack of concern surrounding his elevation to the starting lineup, it's good to check in on Duncan during these voluntary summer workouts. Eventually, the novelty of the new offense will wear off a bit and attention will be spread around, perhaps in the direction of the new man in the middle for the Bucs' defense. If that attention comes during training camp, Duncan plans to be ready.

"It's going pretty good right now," he said. "I'm trying to get everything down, as far as the basics, getting everybody lined up and getting the right calls made. I'm just trying to take it day by day and get the defense put in. I just want to get everything past us so that by the time training camp comes around I won't have to worry about all the little things. I'll just start making plays by reacting. And I'm to that point…the last couple of years have helped me. That's all I'm trying to do out here."

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