DT Ryan Sims (98) played mostly nose tackle in 2007 but is currently replacing Jovan Haye (71) at under tackle
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers learned last season, injuries to starting players can give you the clearest possible look at the talent on your depth chart.
Players like running back Earnest Graham, tackle Donald Penn and even quarterback Luke McCown all stepped in and played remarkably well when the teammates listed ahead of them went down with injuries.
Fast forward to training camp 2008. Head Coach Jon Gruden has stressed that starting under tackle Jovan Haye's groin strain is a minor injury and expects him back on the practice field soon. However, Gruden couldn't help but compare Haye's current stand-in, seventh-year vet Ryan Sims, to one of the Bucs' "super subs" from 2007.
"We like Sims a lot," Gruden said. "He's a load in there. He can play nose or under tackle. He is a big, physical presence. He's a great pocket-pusher. It's hard to step up in there when he's generating that type of push. I'm really impressed with him.
"Again, we have a long way to go, but we said some good things about Ryan last year and we're saying some good things about him this year. Maybe we should learn from Earnest Graham and get him on the field."
As for Sims, it's all seizing the opportunity that has presented itself.
"Camp is going pretty good," Sims said. "It's going really good. I've got a great opportunity right now, so it's going real good for me. I'm trying to fully take advantage. I've been in his position two or three times in my career and been injured, so right now I'm just grinding away and trying to showcase my talent. I've got a great opportunity. Every night I'm running with the first team and getting to showcase my talent in front of the coaches."
The Bucs are using a lot of different defensive line combinations during training camp, looking for the best mix of players come game day. But, more often than not, Sims has been lining up in Haye's spot at under tackle, the man responsible for getting a pass rush push up the middle while the nose tackle occupies the line and plugs the gaps. Sims played in nine games last year at nose, but the switch to under is actually a return to the spot he manned for the first five years of his career, when he played for the Chiefs.
Regardless, Sims is versatile enough to line up at either position on the interior defensive line.
"In Kansas City under tackle was all I played, the three technique, so last year was kind of new coming in playing the nose," Sims said. "I picked it up pretty quickly and got a little bit of playing time at the end of the year, just working my way into the position. Then I got thrown back out there when Jovan went down, so I think it's a good opportunity. I can play both. I feel comfortable at both."
This year, Sims has put an added emphasis on his foot speed, and he thinks that work has helped him progress. Already possessing the brute strength necessary to play nose tackle and clog up the middle, Sims has been working to get even quicker to further improve his pass rush skills at under tackle.
"I've just been working on speed and quickness getting off the ball," Sims said. "I'm still being physical, because I've always prided myself on being a physical player. But I'm trying to add the speed element too."
In training camp thus far, Sims has earned praise from his coaches. Gruden, in fact, has singled out Sims on multiple occasions for his strong play. While the 6-4, 315-pound Sims is certainly a large man, he isn't letting his head get any bigger based on preseason compliments.
"Yeah, it does feel good to hear him say that, but at the same time it's still only practice," Sims said. "I've been in the league a long time. I've seen a lot of great practice guys. It really doesn't mean much until Monday morning."
With Haye sidelined at least through the remainder of the week, Sims will likely be in the starting lineup for the Bucs' preseason opener in Miami Saturday. He said the chance to get out on the field and play against a real opponent – and start, no less – is an exciting proposition and a chance to further impress his coaches.
"Oh man, I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited right now. I'm just going to go out there and work – just do what I've been doing the last year-and-a-half and just work."