LB Cato June has enjoyed his meeting of the minds with LB Derrick Brooks (55)
Ponce de León led several lengthy expeditions to Florida to find the Fountain of Youth but, sadly, never located the restorative waters.
Cato June found them within a matter of months.
Okay, so June didn't come to Florida looking for eternal youth, any more than de León likely did, that romantic story notwithstanding. Still, a funny thing happened for June when he traded in his Indianapolis Colts blue and white for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' red and pewter and moved south.
He suddenly felt young again.
"I was an older player on the Colts; now I'm a young guy again in this locker room," said June. "That kind of makes me sit back and look and say, 'Okay, I still have a lot to learn in this game.'"
Of course, June was by no means 'old' before he signed with the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent last March, even for an NFL player. Now at 28 by the end of his first season in Florida, he is still very much in the prime of his career. But there's something about sliding onto the depth chart next to 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks that makes one feel a little green again.
"Playing with Brooks, playing behind him in passing situations, is another experience for me," said June. "I've learned so much this year. Who better to learn it from?"
Brooks has built the kind of NFL resume that makes him seem like an eventual shoo-in for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. June's career doesn't have quite that much weight yet, but he hasn't lacked for 'experiences' in his five NFL seasons. He's made a Pro Bowl trip of his own, after a 109-tackle, five-interception, two-touchdown campaign in 2005. He's won a Super Bowl ring, with the Colts a little less than a year ago. He's been a special teams ace, a weakside linebacker (in Indy) and a strongside linebacker (in Tampa Bay). And he already owns more than 500 career tackles as well as 11 interceptions.
But June believes he can still improve his game significantly and he also believes he's in the right place to do so. That has a lot to do with playing beside Brooks and under defensive legend Monte Kiffin.
"I'm happy here," said the former Michigan star. "It's been a great experience thus far and it will continue to be. All I can do is learn and get better. When I'm out there, it's all about seizing opportunities. The opportunities that you have are not just opportunities to play – you have to make the best of them."
That "when I'm out there" phrase triggers the one question about June's first year with the Buccaneers, which was considered a rousing success by the team. The question is how June felt about the season, given that he found his role in the defense slightly reduced from what he was used to with the Colts.
In Indy, June was not only a starter in the Colts' very Buc-like 4-3 defense, he was part of the nickel package, too. That meant he was one of the two linebackers that stayed on the field when the opposing offense brought in a third receiver, and he excelled in that role given his strong pass-coverage skills.
When June signed with the Buccaneers, he moved from weakside, or Will, linebacker to strongside, or Sam. There are actually quite a few similarities between the Colts' Will and the Bucs' Sam. However, the Bucs' nickel package most commonly included Will 'backer Brooks and middle (Mike) 'backer Barrett Ruud. June occasionally replaced Brooks in that package, but he still spent more time on the sidelines in passing situations than he had during most of his time in Indianapolis.
Those waiting for the change to cause June to boil over with frustration are still waiting.
"I'm taking it as a learning experience," he said. "I've been in a situation before, during my second year of starting, where I came off on third down. In my mind, I'm thinking, 'Man, why am I coming off on third down? This is kind of my thing.' But it's all about the team.
June racked up 120 tackles, tying for third on the team and representing an impressive number for a player who isn't in on every snap. It matches exactly the total that Ian Gold, another fine linebacker with an established past as a Will, put up in 2004 in the same role. Gold dashed back to Denver after one year with the Buccaneers and has continued an excellent career there, but June came to Tampa for the long haul.
"You do your job," he said. "It's a situation where you take the good with the bad. Anybody on this team would tell you that they want to play every down. No one wants to come off the field in any situation."
June did run into a situation that was admittedly annoying at the very end of his first Buccaneer season. After playing in all 16 regular-season games, he suffered a foot injury in a brief cameo in the season finale and was unable to play in the Bucs' lone playoff contest.
"You play the entire year for this time of year," he said, shortly after the Bucs lost their Wild Card round matchup with the New York Giants. "You're getting ready for the playoffs. The whole season is just a preview for the playoffs, so for me to not be able to go out there and contribute…it's frustrating."
What was worse was that there was no particular moment of injury for June, who played about 16 or 17 snaps, as scheduled, then watched from the sideline. The next morning, his right foot had ballooned considerably, and round-the-clock treatments didn't sufficiently reduce the problem by the following weekend.
Still, June was surprisingly even-keeled throughout the week, and he wasn't letting his disappointment overwhelm him in the days after the game. Rather, he's already looking ahead to next season, and a chance, perhaps, to seize an even greater opportunity.
"I'm not worried about wondering why [I got hurt] or getting an explanation," he said. "It is what it is. Go in and get it fixed and come back stronger."