Second-year LB Geno Hayes assumed the starting spot on the weak side last week against Miami
Early last week, a hole opened up in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting lineup. Like any good linebacker would, Geno Hayes filled the hole, running.
The four-game suspension drawn by Tanard Jackson prompted the Buccaneers to put the Jermaine Phillips-to-linebacker conversion on ice. Phillips, who is entering his eighth NFL season, returned to his original safety position opposite Sabby Piscitelli. The exchange left an opening at the weakside linebacker position, just like that, less than three weeks before the start of the regular season. The first choice to take over that spot was Hayes.
"It's just amazing how opportunities come about," said Hayes, who is entering just his second NFL season after being drafted in the sixth round in 2008. "Sometimes it takes forever, sometimes it just pops up. You just have to take advantage of it when it's there. Right now it's my time to take advantage of it. I think I'm doing pretty well at it right now. I want to keep moving forward."
At the start of camp, Hayes was in the mix at both outside linebacker positions, which had previously been held down by Derrick Brooks and Cato June. Phillips' conversion was looking good, however, and Quincy Black had played well enough to put a hold on the strongside spot as the Bucs strived to put their best 11 men on the field. When Jackson was removed from the picture, the Bucs determined that Hayes was now part of that best 11.
"It was a switch in the best interest of the team," said Hayes. "Flip was a guy who would do anything for the team no matter what it is. It's one of those deals where somebody gets moved around and the next guy has to step up into that role and play the best ball that you can."
Hayes is entering his sophomore season in the NFL; his rookie campaign was cut short due to a knee injury suffered in Week 11 against Minnesota. Black will be entering his third season. Although both players have seen significant experience on special teams, both have yet to record an NFL start.
"Seriously, those guys…I'm really excited about them," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "I think we all are. You've been looking at Quincy Black the last three years, looking at this monster come off the field and now it's his turn. It's his time. I'm excited about Geno [Hayes] and what he's going to get out there and do, and [Adam] Hayward and all those guys. I'm more excited than nervous or concerned. I'm really excited about the speed, I'm really excited about how fast we can play, I'm really excited about the youth. If they go out there and they play well in Week One, we're going to say, 'Man, we're going to be good for years to come.'"
The media and the general public will take a little more convincing, but that's understanding. As Morris pointed out earlier in the week, using Matt Cassel's 2008 season as an example, no one knows if a team has depth until that depth is forced into action. Hayes is obviously unproven on the NFL level, and he's young. He was the second-youngest player in the entire league in 2008, as a matter of fact. However, he is not the least bit worried by his youth or lack of experience.
"The public needs to understand that this is the NFL," said Hayes. "It is full of great athletes. Every day and every year, there is always another athlete coming from the depth chart. It could be someone that you never even knew before coming out to shine for his team. It's the NFL. Even though we are young, we have a lot of spunk, enthusiasm and are hard workers. We are going to put our best foot forward and we're not going to use the youth aspect as an excuse for anything that goes on. We aren't even worried about the youth part, it's just football. We have to man up and beat our man."
After the knee injury ended his rookie campaign, Hayes hit the 2009 offseason at full speed and was eager to get back to the field, but in a larger role.
"I was striving to be starting," he said. "Being healthy is something that I can try to be the best at but it is out of my control. I wasn't really worried about health, I was worried about getting back to the action and putting forth my best foot."
Linebacker coach, Joe Barry was impressed by Hayes' hunger to get on the field.
"I think he possesses some rare qualities in his athleticism," said Barry. "His speed brings a lot of quickness to the field. Geno is a very instinctive guy. He has great instincts; he can decipher plays before they happen. Those are the positives. The thing with Geno that he has to just get past, and it's the case with most young players, is that he just has to be consistent. He has to show up to work every single day and he can't have ups and downs and peaks and valleys. He needs to be consistent every single day."
Hayes had an outstanding training camp and is producing big numbers on both defense and special teams during the preseason games. Through three contests, in which the Bucs have cycled in dozens of players, Hayes has eight tackles and a pass defensed on defense and four stops on special teams.
"I just went out there and pushed it, day in and day out," said Hayes of his approach to training camp. "I focused on the little things, the details, made sure I had a more accountable stance for myself and my responsibilities. I just went out there and worked hard. I put it all in and didn't leave anything behind."
It appears that Hayes has filled the void at the weakside linebacker position, and he could be at the beginning of a long run as a starter for the Buccaneers. However, the Buccaneers could revive the Phillips experiment after Jackson's return, which could lead to further switches in the starting lineup. Again, the coaching staff will put its best 11 men on the field, whoever that proves to be at the time.
That's something that neither Hayes nor his coaches are worrying about at this point, however.
"I'm one of those people who live in the now." Barry said. "I'm not worried about Week Five or Week Six; I'm worried about September 13 and the Dallas Cowboys. I think we as a coaching staff and a defense have to make sure we're set for the Dallas Cowboys and we're at full throttle. Having Jermaine at safety gives us our best opportunity to be successful. What happens down the road, who knows? We will deal with that when we get there. I'm worried about the first quarter of the season and even more specifically, I'm worried about September 13."
Hayes? He's not worried at all.