The best way for rookie LB Barrett Ruud to impress veteran teammate Derrick Brooks was to hustle to the football
Derrick Brooks' first on-field impression of Cadillac Williams: He held onto the ball.
Brooks and Williams worked as teammates – and practice-field foes – for the first time this week as their Tampa Bay Buccaneers held a series of 'organized team activity' days. These OTAs were the first opportunity for the team's veterans to see the newest crop of rookies in action, and the beginning of the coaches' efforts to mesh the two groups together.
Rookie linebacker Barrett Ruud, for instance, saw Brooks step right out of the highlight reel in his head and play next to him in Monte Kiffin's defense. Brian Griese stepped into the Bucs' locker room on Tuesday morning, saw at least 25 new faces and said to himself, "Ah, new weapons!" And Williams, who hopes to inject instant life into Tampa Bay's running game with his silky moves, made at least one positive impression by focusing on ball security.
It was an encouraging week, as, admittedly, they often are in May. After practicing separately at two different points in April and early May, the rookies and veterans were very happy to see each other.
"It seemed like we had a whole new arsenal, which was nice because we need help," said Griese. "I'm excited about a lot of these guys. I haven't had a chance to actually meet all of them, just because [Tuesday] was our first day with them, but they look like they know what they're doing and they're going to help us."
Ruud said he saw improvements in his game almost immediately thanks to help from Brooks, Shelton Quarles and Ryan Nece almost immediately. Ruud got the low spot on the totem pole when it came to menial labor, but the veterans want to see him succeed on the field.
"They're great," said the second-rounder from Nebraska. "Unfortunately, I'm a rookie so I've got to do some of the dirty work sometimes. But they're also there to teach you. Just seeing guys who I've seen since high school. I've been watching basically the same guys on the team since the late '90s. It was cool to be out there with them."
This is an important stretch of work for the Buccaneers, who have put a lot of their hopes into the eventual development of this year's crop of rookies. The team still believes in the championship core of talent represented by such proven producers as Brooks, Quarles, Simeon Rice, Ronde Barber, etc., but knows that core needed an addition of young talent. Brooks and his veteran teammates are in position to be mentors, but right now they're leaving the in-depth teaching to the coaching staff.
"Right now, these guys are just trying to come in and learn as much as they can in a short period of time, and hopefully learn each more every day," said Brooks. "We're just trying to show them the ropes, obviously, by how we work. The way we work is a little different from college, as far as the contact part of things. Right now, it's just getting your mental game together. All we can do is really just show them…not talk to them but just show them by working and setting an example."
Added Griese: "The thing I try to help them the most with is just the mental aspect of it, preparing for practice, coming out every day with the mental preparation that they need to succeed. If you don't do the work in the classroom, it doesn't matter how talented you are when you come out here. You're going to make a mistake and then the coaches are going to jump all over you and it's going to be an embarrassing situation. I try to help them out as much as I can with that aspect of it, then when we get on the field with reminders in and out of the huddle of where to line up, what their responsibilities are. Hopefully, they take that and run with it."
The assimilation of the offensive and defensive playbooks will take time, and that's the purpose of these OTA days and the upcoming mini-camp in June. Still, there are certain basic lessons that can be passed on right away. This week, the coaching staff, and by extension the team veterans, paid particular attention to the importance of turnovers – creating and preventing them. In that regard, Brooks was pleased with his first close-up look at Williams.
"I don't know if he made a mistake or not because I'm not in the offensive meeting room," said Brooks of the Bucs' first-round running back. "But, again, when he had the ball in his hand, he was conscious of holding onto it. Guys were trying to strip it out and he was finishing the play. The theme of the first day was turnovers. Defensively, if you create turnovers in this league you win games. Offense, if you don't turn it over, you win games. Obviously, both sides of the football today were turnover conscious in terms of trying to get them on defense and in terms of preventing them on offense."
For much the same reason, the coaches stressed running at top speed and finishing plays. Defensive Backs Coach Mike Tomlin, for instance, told the young corners and safeties that he expected them to make some mistakes, but he wanted to see those mistakes at full speed. That was a lesson the rookies took to heart.
"Right now, it's just too early to judge [the rookies]," said Brooks. "I'm looking forward to them just running to the ball. That's the only thing that coach was trying to sell: No matter what mistake you make, finish the play. If it's something bad, make something good out of it with your hustle. I think the guys hustled very well out there."