Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris is convinced his starting strongside linebacker - fourth-year man Quincy Black - is poised for a breakout season in 2010.
An impressive offseason of practices and workouts has Black brimming with confidence, and his coach is equally firm in his belief that the young, physical 'backer is ready to make a name for himself in the upcoming campaign.
"The young man came in and he was already a physical specimen," Morris said. "When he got here, he was also very athletic and had the potential to make big-time plays. What he's done this offseason is he's come in very confident. He's a razor-sharp guy when it comes to football and he always has questions. He always knows the reason when he's doing something different."
But as for Black, he says there's been no change to his approach, no magic snap of the fingers that has instantly transformed him in the eyes of his coach or anyone else. It's just been business as usual and making the necessary adjustments after a frustrating 2009 season.
"Obviously after a 3-13 season some things have got to change," Black said. "You've got to look at yourself and realize some of the things that you didn't do as well as you think that you can do. You want to improve on those and you've got to find a way to improve on them.
"I think I did some things well. I did some things not so well, and I'm looking to improve on those. Taking advantage of the opportunity could mean a lot of different things, but when it's all said and done we won three games last year. We lost 13. You really can't say you took advantage of all the opportunities because if you did, you would like to think that the record would be a lot better than it was."
Even as he turned his gaze inward to reflect on the individual improvements he's needed to make this offseason, Black kept his primary focus on the team's success in 2010. Despite his coach singling him out, when talk of a breakout year is brought up, Black frames the discussion in terms of collective victories rather than personal accomplishments.
"A breakout season would be us to win a bunch of games, play in the playoffs, postseason accolades, all that stuff," Black said. "All those things would mean a breakout season to me. But it really doesn't matter at the end of the day, because I'm here to win football games. Everybody around here is working and grinding, and we just want to win."
Black has been working and grinding ever since joining the Bucs as a third-round pick in the 2007 NFL draft. A strong special teams player in the earliest stages of his career, Black finally assumed a starting role in 2009, opening 13 of the team's 16 games.
Black racked up 84 tackles - good for third on the team - as well as 1.5 sacks, four passes defensed and an interception in his first tour of full-time duty. Impressive numbers by any measure, but Black is being counted on for even more production in 2010. With Morris assuming control of the defensive play-calling and bringing back some familiar strategies in the later stages of the 2009 season, Black's comfort level is expanding at the same rate as his role on defense. That includes some potential new responsibilities as a stand-up rusher in some 3-4-like fronts the team has been trying out this offseason.
"We were doing some things we were more comfortable with [when Morris resumed control of the defense]," Black said. "We were a lot more aggressive. It became a point where we wanted to force our will on our opponents and we actually had the tools to do it.
"We were more comfortable doing some of the things we were doing, things we had been doing, and throwing some new wrinkles in. It kept it exciting, kept it fun, and kept guys involved, kept guys engaged, and I think that sparked a lot of what we did in those last six games."
While Black has continued to develop this offseason and picked up some new techniques to work on, his teammates around him are also generating some interest. With a group of other young, rising stars in Aqib Talib and Geno Hayes and some big-name draft picks expected to solidify the front line in Gerald McCoy and Brian Price - not to mention stalwarts like Tanard Jackson, Barrett Ruud and veteran Ronde Barber - the pieces seem to be falling into place for the Bucs to resume their lofty perch among NFL defenses under Morris' tutelage.
"That's the plan," Black said. "The standards have been set. The bar has been set, and it's a high bar. You've got to prepare to get to it or exceed it. Right now we're just looking to get better. We're looking for improvement on a game-by-game basis and I know a lot of guys are looking for improvement on a personal level. You just want to improve and win some games."
In Tampa, a top-10 defense has become less of a pleasant surprise and more of an expectation over the past two decades, but the excitement is building around this young group. Black says he feels it too, but such a buzz in June is useless unless the Bucs translate it to success on the field and reverse last season's woes.
And, he says he's eager to play a key part in doing just that, as well as living up to his coach's prediction of a "breakout season" - for the team as a whole, of course.
"It's always exciting," Black said. "It's June right now; it's an exciting time of the year. It's always exciting around this time of the year because there's so much possibility. Everyone has potential and it's fun. When it's all said and done though, you've got to go out and perform. It doesn't matter what you're doing on the practice field, it doesn't matter what you're doing in the offseason, because if it doesn't show up on Sundays, then you're 3-13."