Louisville LB Robert McCune got expert advice from Joe Barry (pictured) and also appreciated the work of Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia
Early in the second period of Tuesday afternoon's South squad practice for the Senior Bowl, as running backs matched up against linebackers in a series of one-on-ones, Alabama 'backer Cornelius Wortham drew Citadel back Nehemiah Broughton. Broughton ran a shallow route to the right flat, with Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell waiting to deliver the ball.
Only Campbell never threw. Wortham's coverage on Broughton was so tight that the quarterback knew there was no point. He jogged forward to emulate a scramble and the play was over.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Linebackers Coach Joe Barry was on Wortham almost as quickly as the 'Bama star had closed on Broughton. In seconds, Barry had his arm around Wortham's shoulders, praising him loudly for the "great job with your eyes."
Barry went on to explain to Wortham exactly what he meant by the compliment as the two moved back toward the huddle. Then another linebacker lined up over another running back, and the cycle started again. Most of the snaps ended with Barry right up against his player's shoulder, pointing out what went right on the play or what needed some work.
That's the type of in-depth instruction Wortham and his 49 teammates on the South team are receiving all this week.
"He's energetic," said Wortham of Barry. "He gets in your face and shows you. He doesn't just tell you. He gets in there and shows you what he wants. You've got a lot of coaches that try to point the direction, and a lot of guys don't learn that way. They want you to get down and really show them what they want."
Barry wasn't the only Buccaneer coaching trying to bring the best out of the South linebackers on Tuesday afternoon. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin made his directives clear during team sessions, Head Coach Jon Gruden sought to motivate players at all positions and Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia worked most of the linebackers into the kicking game.
Wortham was impressed by the entire Buccaneer staff.
"I like how they bring enthusiasm and aggression to the game," he said. "I'm really enjoying it. They put their all into it and they expect you to put your all into it. They make you feel comfortable."
It's good that Wortham feels that way, of course, but some of the coaches' moves are designed to make players feel uncomfortable. That is, nobody on the Buccaneer staff is pulling any punches with the men of the South squad. In the huddle after Tuesday afternoon's 90-minute practice, Gruden reminded the men to treat the week like a business trip, and to approach each practice like an interview. To help the players ace those interviews, Buccaneer coaches are working the field as intensely as they would a midseason practice at team headquarters.
The players not only notice this, they appreciate it.
"This coaching staff? I'll tell you what: They're intense," said North Carolina center Jason Brown, who was chosen as the team's offensive captain on Monday. "You can feel the radiance coming off them. You can feel their passion for coaching. They've come out here to do nothing less than win on Saturday, and they're preparing us to our fullest extent."
In the post-practice huddle, Gruden also told the players that they had no further team obligations that evening. However, Brown knows he could continue to work on his game at night if he so desired. Gruden has instructed all of his assistant coaches to be ready to meet with any player at any time; if Brown saw Senior Assistant Aaron Kromer in the hallway and asked for a joint film session on the spot, Kromer would do it.
"If we want extra time to meet with our coaches, they're willing to take time out of their evenings to spend two, three hours with us, go over film, do everything that it takes to make us better this week," said Brown. "It shows that they truly care."
Brown says he has already seen the benefit of working with Kromer and the Bucs' staff. Chances are, the hundreds of NFL coaches, scouts and personnel men packing the stands at Ladd Peebles Stadium have seen it, too.
"I'll tell you what – in a 24-hour extent, from my practice yesterday to today, it's been a turnaround. Just like that – a complete turnaround," said Brown. "That's important, because not only our we performing for the coaching staff here, but for every single scout, every single team manager, G.M., owner, everyone who is here watching. We're being evaluated on every little single thing that we do. They're preparing us in all areas."
That includes special teams, Bisaccia's bailiwick. Most of these players will be drafted in April, but most of them will find their most direct route to playing time in the NFL through the kicking game. While it sometimes takes a few years for a player to make an impact at his natural position, he can improve his chances of being around long enough for that to happen by proving valuable on special teams.
The smart players know this. Louisville linebacker Robert McCune is one of those players. McCune, who served three years in the National Guard and completed a six-month tour in Kuwait before going to school, compared Bisaccia favorably to his drill sergeant. Like the other Buc coaches, Bisaccia want to get the most out of his players in the kicking game, and McCune is happy to take advantage of that opportunity.
"I don't mind playing special teams," said McCune. "That's how I got myself in college, by playing hard on special teams. It's not a problem to me to play on special teams."
The Buccaneer coaches share a certain intensity, but not all of them make their point by yelling. Barry may dole out some in-your-face cheerleading. Defensive Backs Coach Mike Tomlin barks out repeated commands that get to every detail of a cornerback's body movement. Kiffin simply boils over with enthusiasm.
And Running Backs Coach Art Valero might just kill you with kindness. That was the impression he made on West Virginia running back Kay-Jay Harris, a Tampa native. Amusingly, Harris called Valero the most 'polite' coach he had encountered.
"Coach Valero, he's definitely a different style of coach," said Harris. "He's more of a motivator. He has a lot of energy and he always stays positive about everything. That's what I like about him. That's definitely a different style from what I've had. I mean that as a compliment. He can still make us work really hard without all the yelling, and that's good. Some guys need coaches like that."
Others need yelling, apparently, and that is no short supply on a Buccaneer practice field. Harris enjoys that type of motivation, as well.
"Gruden is my type of coach," he said. "I know he's an intense, loud, vocal guy and that's something I've been around my whole life. This staff, I love them to death. I don't take anything personally…it's just the way they are. If you can't deal with the way they coach, you can't play this game."
Harris wishes he could continue to deal with it after this Senior Bowl week has concluded. A Tampa native, he would be far from heartbroken if the Bucs made him one of their draft picks in April.
"If I had only one thing to ask this coaching staff I would ask them to keep me from moving," he said with a laugh.
USC defensive tackle Mike Patterson wouldn't mind ending up in red and pewter either. One of the early standouts during the first two days of practice, Patterson has played in a defense similar to that run by the Buccaneers and has quickly taken a liking to the Tampa Bay staff.
"If they need me, I wouldn't mind going," he said. "I'm used to that defense, and I feel like I could do a lot over there. I like working with their coaches, and I've got some experience here. I'm sure things will be different at the next level, but I feel comfortable with them already."
That was the prevailing sentiment on the Ladd Peebles field after Tuesday's practice. The 50 South squad players have an important test coming up on Saturday, and they're taking the equivalent of mini-terms during each practice session, but they are confident that they are learning from the best.
"They're great coaches," said McCune. "They want us to learn and get better. They're just great motivators."