Second-year LB Barrett Ruud is already a standout on special teams
It was only the first preseason game, but the Raymond James Stadium crowd had grown pensive watching the vaunted Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense get steadily and uncharacteristically backed up towards its own end zone by the New York Jets. Then it happened.
Six yards away from the goal line, free safety Kalvin Pearson timed a blitz perfectly and second-year linebacker Barrett Ruud alertly scooped up the loose ball after Pearson swatted it way from Chad Pennington. End of scoring threat. The crowd exhaled, and all was well in the land of pewter and red.
That Ruud found himself in position to capitalize on Pearson's hit is no surprise; he seems to have a nose for the ball. That observation was underscored a quarter later when Ruud shot through the line like a heat-seeking missile and forced Jets quarterback Kellen Clemens into the arms of a blitzing Steve Cargile for a sack.
Opposing offenses take note: Barrett Ruud is waking up.
In his second year in the NFL, the 6-2, 241-pound linebacker is starting to get comfortable with the speed of the game, the defensive scheme and his own abilities. He's even been called out by Head Coach Jon Gruden as one of a group of second-year players who have "shown themselves well" at training camp.
"The comfort level is just a lot better, as far as knowing what to expect, knowing the defense," said Ruud, comparing the last few days of this year's training camp to this time at last year's camp. "I just feel a lot more relaxed when I'm out there right now."
Although he may feel relaxed, Ruud's up-tempo style of play looks anything but. During one play at training camp, Ruud managed to hurdle his blocker, stay on his feet and hurry quarterback Chris Simms into an incompletion. Whether it's on defense, special teams or practicing in the stifling 100-degree Orlando heat, Ruud never stops hustling.
"The first thing you've got to do is hustle," Ruud said. "You can't go wrong if you hustle to the ball. After that, it's running and hitting and trying to make all the plays."
It's that intense drive as well as flat-out athletic ability that prompted the Bucs to draft Ruud with their second-round pick of 2005, the overall 36th selection of the draft. The former All-American linebacker out of Nebraska is not only an effective tackler – he finished his collegiate career as the Cornhuskers' all-time leader in stops – he has the ability to turn and run with backs and tight ends, which is vital to Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin's 'Tampa 2' scheme. Last season, Ruud was one of three Buccaneer rookies to play in all 16 games, although most of his time was spent on special teams – a responsibility he again has this year and is more than willing to embrace.
"[Everyone's] dealt with it at one point – there wasn't anybody who just skipped that part," Ruud said. "Special teams is blue-collar. It's putting your time in and it's rough, it's rough out there. It's a tough job, but that's what you get paid to do. It's a lot of work, but it's a good time, too."
Wherever he is and whatever he's doing, number 51 always seems to be flying around as if he's on a mission. Maybe he is.
See, Ruud is technically the second-team middle linebacker, behind tackling machine Shelton Quarles, but he admittedly wants to play a bigger role in the Bucs' defense – something akin to his performance during last Friday's preseason opener when he saw significant action and made a significant impact. For now though, he remains behind Quarles, whose tackle totals have increased each year since 2003 and who last year led the defense with 196 tackles. Those numbers have earned Quarles league-wide respect, most especially from Ruud, whose hunger for bigger things is clearly a testament to his own competitiveness and in no way a sign of disrespect to the veteran linebacker.
"[Quarles] is a good guy to play behind, and Shelton is a great guy, in general," Ruud said. "Off the field, he's what you want to model yourself after. Nobody wants to be second-string guy, but if you've got to be behind a guy, Shelton is not a bad guy to be behind.
"Still, nobody plays to be second string. You always want to be the guy out there playing, and that's just what I'm going to keep working to do."