Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Hot Corner

Head Coach Tony Dungy sees a heated battle shaping up between the team’s young defensive backs

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CB Earthwind Moreland's top-notch speed made him a draft consideration, and a valuable free agent pickup for the Bucs

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked second in the league in pass defense in 1999 and second the year before that as well. In fact, since Head Coach Tony Dungy and Defensive Backs Coach Herman Edwards arrived in 1996, a pass defense that had finished in the league's top 10 just once in the previous 13 years has now done so for four consecutive seasons.

In addition, all four of last year's Buc starters in the secondary are returning in 2000 (CB Ronde Barber, a restricted free agent, remained unsigned in mid-June), including Pro Bowl S John Lynch and CB Donnie Abraham, who had what many considered a Pro Bowl-caliber season in '99. All of the unit's key subs, including primary nickel back Brian Kelly, are also back with the team. Thus, it was not much of a surprise when the Bucs went five rounds into April's NFL draft without adding a defensive back.

Starting on Sunday, April 16, however, the Bucs started to add to the secondary rather rapidly. From the sixth round that day through the post-draft period in which teams contact and sign undrafted rookies, Tampa Bay picked up five new DBs, including safeties David Gibson and Ashley Cooper and cornerbacks Tarig Holman, Earthwind Moreland and Terrance Parrish. And, judging from their efforts during the recently-concluded voluntary summer workouts, that group may prove to have more of an impact than expected.

Of course, every position gets an influx of young talent every spring, at least in part to make sure there are enough players to run the necessary practices and drills during training camp. However, Dungy prefers to bring in players, even unknowns, that have a legitimate shot to make the team, and the Bucs' group of new secondary hopefuls may be a particularly good example of that.

"I think our young, first-year secondary is the best group that we've had (since he arrived)," said Dungy. "Earthwind Moreland, Parrish, Holman…those guys have really been impressive the way they've picked things up. David Gibson, we drafted and we felt he would be able to fit in there at safety for us."

Cooper was not mentioned by Dungy in that breath simply because Cooper did not participate in the workouts due to patellar tendonitis in his right knee. Dungy remains high on the Mississippi State product, who did attend all the workouts and soak up the classroom work.

Meanwhile, Moreland, Parrish, Holman and Gibson had ample opportunities to show their stuff, as nearly every practice included one-on-one cover sessions with the Bucs' backs, receivers and tight ends. The full-team sessions that followed were used for an indication of how well the young players had absorbed the Bucs' defensive scheme. Dungy was clearly pleased at what he saw, even if he was focused more on effort than perfection.

"I don't try to evaluate too much during this period of time," said Dungy. "I think it's a little dangerous to do that when you don't have the pads on and when so many guys are just trying to learn. But I've been impressed with the way the guys have worked, the effort that we've gotten team-wise, and I think that's good."

At the same time, the Bucs' veterans were as sharp as usual, so with so many attractive options opening up during the workouts, Dungy and his staff chose to experiment with some of the positions. Most notably, second-year player Dexter Jackson, last year's fourth-round draft pick, moved up from his safety spot to try his hand at cornerback. Also, fourth-year man Floyd Young, himself a former undrafted free agent who came out of nowhere to make the team in 1997, got an extended look at nickel back, a role he filled for most of his rookie year.

"We're trying to look at the best spots and groom some guys to play a couple of different positions," said Dungy. "Dexter having been here a year, and Floyd Young getting some work in the last part of this camp in nickel back…those kinds of things help you start to be a little bit flexible. There's going to be some good battles in the secondary."

So let's meet the newest combatants.

Gibson was the team's sixth-round draft pick, a hard-hitting product of USC. Though he played linebacker during his sophomore and junior seasons, earning all-conference honors in 1998, Gibson switched to strong safety as a senior and immediately impressed at his new position with 81 tackles and 10 passes defensed. He lined up exclusively at strong safety during the recent workouts and also saw extensive action on special teams.

Like the Bucs' starting free safety, Damien Robinson, Holman is a former Iowa Hawkeye who was a ball-hawk in the Big Ten. In three years on the field at Iowa, Holman snared eight interceptions (Robinson had 14 in four campaigns), adding 136 tackles. Though he started as a scout team player at Iowa, he was eventually selected to play in the Blue-Gray All-Star game after his senior season. Holman played cornerback during the workouts and appeared to have strong cover skills.

Moreland was a two-year All-Southern Conference choice at Georgia Southern and, like Holman, he signed with the Bucs after going undrafted. Though he came to Georgia Southern as a walk-on wide receiver, he eventually started 42 games at cornerback and was a third-team All America pick as a senior. The Buccaneers considered spending a draft choice on Moreland, who has blazing speed and also looked sharp at corner in camp.

Parrish is the second former Mississippi State cornerback picked up by the Bucs in the last six months, joining first-year player DeShone Mallard, who was signed on January 25 and is currently playing in the NFL Europe League. As a four-year player and three-year starter for the Golden Eagles, he totaled 107 tackles and six picks. Parrish completes the trio of young corners that so favorably drew Coach Dungy's attention in recent weeks.

As Dungy mentioned, of course, no serious evaluations have yet been drawn on these players and their chances of making the final roster. That opportunity will come in just over a month, when the team opens its training camp on July 23. It never hurts to catch the head coach's eye, however, and these four have certainly done that.

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