Jermaine Phillips looked good in his first practices at linebacker on Tuesday
On the last play of the last drill of Tuesday morning's practice at One Buccaneer Place, Jermaine Phillips dashed across the sideline, threw himself to the ground and began a series of punitive push-ups.
The punishment, it turns out, was self-imposed.
Back on the field, the reaction was much different. Phillips' teammates 'oohed' and 'aahed' over his quick reaction on the play, Defensive Coordinator Jim Bates shouted his approval and Linebackers Coach Joe Barry ran after Phillips to pound him on the back. "Next time," yelled Barry, "one-handed interception and take it to the house, Flip."
And therein lies the reason for the push-ups, whether truly deserved or not. Phillips had read the play perfectly, made an extremely quick move to get between fullback B.J. Askew and the oncoming pass and nearly snared the football with his outstretched left hand. Phillips wanted the big play; his coaches were simply thrilled that he had made the right play.
See, what was important about that particular dash to the correct spot was that Phillips made it from the weakside linebacker position. A safety throughout his college and pro playing days, the eighth-year veteran is taking on a new challenge in 2009, trying to learn the position that, for the Buccaneers, has been filled by Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks for the last 14 years.
The Buccaneers' morning practice on Tuesday – the first of five workouts that will comprise the team's voluntary mini-camp – was Phillips' initial opportunity to take a run at the position in the context of actual, organized competition. The drill was a seven-on-seven period – meaning all passing, no running – but it was at full speed against experienced offensive players. Phillips looked like a natural.
"The first day, I paid a little more attention to Flip than I did to other players," admitted new Defensive Coordinator Jim Bates. "I thought he had an excellent start. He's picked it up well and he's done some things surprisingly well."
Phillips got some one-on-one coaching from the Bucs' defensive staff two weeks ago, but Tampa Bay's coaches were off last week while the NFL held its owners' meetings. His years of coming down "into the box" in run support as Tampa Bay's hard-hitting safety have given him quite a bit of default experience in the linebackers' realm, but it would be natural for Phillips to be a bit confused in the early going. Instead, he says the game is already slowing down for him at his new spot.
"I feel like I'm a linebacker already," said Phillips. "It's coming. It's just a matter of getting my reads down and getting my keys down and doing the little things, and talking to some of the linebackers who've been here and them letting me know different things here and there that maybe I can add to my bag of tricks to help me out.
Phillips, who has approximately 230 pounds on his 6-2 frame, said he doesn't plan to change his size to fit his possible new position. Indeed, the broad-shouldered safety didn't look at all out of place among the Bucs' other linebackers on the practice field on Tuesday.
"I've always said, 'Just come down," said linebacker Barrett Ruud. "'You're already 230 pounds; just take a couple steps forward. Now you can eat your cookies; you don't have to watch your weight anymore. You can come down and play with me and be fat and happy.'"
Phillips strong first impression is just that: a first impression. He didn't have to react to a strong-side run or a play-action pass in that seven-on-seven drill, and he won't even get a chance to bang pads with a lineman until training camp. Ruud knows that battle with the big men on the line, as well as the reduced reaction time between the two levels of defense, are two areas that would test any safety trying to make such a transition.
"Just dealing with linemen all the time [is difficult]," said Ruud. "It's a little bit more of quicker reads. Safety, you've got a little more time to oversee the whole field. Linebacker, you're in the box and you're reading a smaller area. You have to be able to take one player and key them as opposed to maybe having a whole field to survey over."
Still, Tuesday's work represented a very good start for Phillips, who found it most challenging trying to decide which group to join during individual drills.
"I was a little confused, and then I was torn," he said with a smile. "Man, I got my safeties and DBs over here and my linebackers over here. Maybe I should just go down with the D-Line so I don't hurt anybody's feelings. It was good, though. It was a smooth transition today. I lined up in the right places and did the right assignments."