(Editor's Note: The following question-and-answer session with linebacker Adam Hayward first appeared in a game preview that is delivered each week to members of the One Buc Club, exclusively. The weekly preview also contains an in-depth look at that weekend's matchup, with injury updates, players who are on hot streaks and players who are due, statistical trends that could affect the game's outcome, five opponents to keep an eye on, and more. The One Buc Club is free and open to all fans; to learn more and to sign up, please *click here.)*
Small school. Late-round draft pick. Special teams ace.
Check, check and check. But now you can check this box next to Adam Hayward's name, too: Next man up.
That's a phrase Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches have been uttering a lot lately, as six of their starters have gone down with season-ending injuries in recent weeks. Still, the Buccaneers have remained firmly in the playoff hunt because men who were once reserves have stepped into larger roles and performed well. That's what Adam Hayward plans to do over the final few weeks of the regular season.
The latest to fall in that frustrating trend of starters was strongside linebacker Quincy Black, who suffered a broke an arm in Washington. That makes Hayward – a 2007 seventh-round pick out of FCS school Portland State, and until now mostly a star on special teams – a key figure for the Buccaneers down the stretch. He and rookie Dekoda Watson will be asked to fill in for Black, and fill in well.
There is reason for confidence. Black missed two games in November due to a different injury, and Hayward and Watson stepped up admirably. The Bucs' defense never skipped a beat in wins over Carolina and San Francisco, with the two reserve linebackers contributing a string of key plays. That experience, along with Hayward's dedication, preparation, and faith, has him supremely confident that he will be able to duplicate those results. He is clearly relishing the opportunity.
You came into the league as a sixth-round pick out of an FCS school, Portland State. Was there a moment that you realized that you were going to be good enough to play in the NFL? How confident were you coming in?
"Honestly, I knew that I was going to play. When I was a little kid, that was something I always said, that I was going to play in the NFL. I knew with my hard work and determination I wasn't going to stop. The good Lord, he blessed me with that opportunity to play in the NFL. I'm very thankful for that, and I honor Him every day. I just continue to play and hopefully He keeps continuing to bless me, and when it's time to stop, it's time to stop."
How much does the game of football mean to you? How hard do you work to stay in the NFL?
"Football itself is a game, so it doesn't mean that much to me in that aspect of it being a game. But the things I'm able to do with community and charity events with children, that means so much more to me with the type of person that I am. I definitely work as hard as I can to stick around and keep doing those things."
A good portion of your playing time during your career so far has been on special teams, where you are one of the Bucs' most productive players. What kind of mentality does it take to succeed on special teams? Have you been satisfied with your career so far?
"I've never been satisfied because you always want to be better and work to get better. [Associate Head Coach/Special Teams Coordinator] Rich Bisaccia is a great coach, and he gets everybody's mind set that special teams is very important. Some places just look at it as special teams. Here, it's a huge factor in winning and losing games. One play can mean a touchdown and a team is back in the game. It's just a mentality. He finds those core guys that are his guys, and he molds them to be how he wants them. If you buy into that, you're going to be a great special teams player. That's my goal. I've looked up to Rich. My rookie year, we butted heads because he knew what he wanted and I didn't quite understand it, but as time developed, I developed into what he wants and what he's looking for with my attributes. I think that's an amazing thing. That's a mentality I have, to enjoy playing special teams, because it helps."
With Quincy Black going out with a broken arm, you're seeing a lot more playing time on defense. I know you feel bad for Quincy, but how much are you looking forward to contributing on defense for the playoff stretch run?
"I love contributing on defense and doing everything I can to help the team win. Sometimes I've been able to come in under different situations and make a few plays here and there. Bottom line, whatever I can do to help the team win is what I'm going to do. It's unfortunate Quincy broke his arm, but now it's time for the next man to step in and continue to play like this defense can. That's what I'm looking forward to doing."
Have you been itching to start for a long time, or has it just been a matter of doing whatever the team asks you to do?
"Honestly, every player who wants to be great has the itch to start. But the time hasn't been right, and like I said, the Lord blessed me and now it's time. How it happened is unfortunate, but God works in different ways, and I feel like it's time for Him to allow me to play and now it's time to go out there and honor Him and play."
You and Dekoda Watson saw a lot of action against Carolina and San Francisco in November when Quincy was out with a different injury, and the defense played extremely well in those two games. Did that give you confidence that you could once again step up and play as well or better than the guy you're replacing?
"Definitely we can. We prepare to be the starter, and you never know what happens. In the NFL, they say any given play something can happen. So mentally you prepare for that every play, and I feel like we have. So all we can do is keep getting better in this last stretch of three games towards the playoffs and prepare that much harder."
Are there differences between you and Quincy in terms of strengths and style of play?
"Quincy obviously is a lot faster. Quincy is an unbelievably fast player. I feel like I'm fast and strong. We've very similar in how strong we are and our aggression. That's obviously why we were drafted here in the beginning, because we had that similar mentality and that play style. Granted, he's a little faster than me and a little taller, but I have instant leverage. We were both brought in here to be very similar and that type of linebacker that they enjoy and are molding us into."
You won't be the first player the Bucs have asked to step up and keep the playoff race on track this year…far from it. How has this team managed to keep winning despite so many recent injuries and lineup changes?
"We remain un-wavered. Things are going to happen. This is the NFL. We've got a lot of people who are grown men. He brings in people that he knows can step in at any minute, and that's kind of who he has. We have young, hungry players that know their opportunity can come by any means. You've just got to be ready to go."
This team wasn't expected by analysts to compete this year, but here you are with three weeks left right in the thick of the playoff race. How confident was this young team heading into the season and how much has that confidence grown during the course of the season?
"That all goes back to our head coach. Our head coach is a very confident man. People can tell by his energy and the way his demeanor is. That just kind of trickles off onto us and that's how we are. We're young, we're fast, we're talented, and we know that we're a good team. We knew that going into it, that we were a good, talented team. People didn't believe us, but it wasn't about them. It was about inside these buildings. That's the only thing that matters – the team you play for and the guys around you. We've always believed it, and you have your people still saying our schedule isn't that good, but it's the NFL. Look at Green Bay and Detroit [last weekend]. Detroit won. You never know what's going to happen on Sunday. We just keep playing and worry about our business inside this building and what it's going to take to get into the playoffs. Once you get to the playoffs, it's anybody's game."