Led by quarterback Josh Freeman, some members of the Buccaneers have been working out at the University of South Florida and other facilities around the Tampa Bay area during the NFL lockout this offseason in an effort to stay in shape and prepare for the upcoming 2011 campaign.
Second-year linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, a former Bucs practice squader and USF alum, has been one of several Tampa Bay players to attend all of the workouts Freeman has put together. While the team has had good attendance at these workouts with over 20 players in regular participation, McKenzie said that he and Freeman are trying to get the entire Buccaneers team to attend the practices that will be held in a few weeks in the middle of June.
“It’s been going really well,” McKenzie said of the team’s practices. “I’m just trying to take advantage of the offseason so I can get prepared for this upcoming season. I’ve been training crazy – like six days a week, and I’ve been in contact with my teammates and training with them at different training facilities.”
McKenzie has played an instrumental role in helping organize the Buccaneers’ workouts at his alma mater.
“We’ve been getting together and doing some stuff at USF, and I have also been going to USF,” McKenzie said. “I’ve also been working out with [the Bulls] linebackers and doing linebacker-specific drills and trying to help those young guys out for USF’s upcoming season as well.”
Originally a third-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft by New England, McKenzie tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the training camp of his rookie season and was placed on injured reserve. When the Patriots drafted Brandon Spikes in the second round in 2010 to pair with Jerod Mayo as McKenzie was coming off his ACL tear, the future of the former Riverview, Fla. product was in doubt in New England.
McKenzie made it through training camp after rehabbing his knee in 2010, but was placed on the Patriots practice squad last year. Sensing that his opportunity to start in New England had vanished with the drafting of Spikes, McKenzie asked head coach Bill Belichick to release him from the practice squad with the hope that he could sign with his hometown Buccaneers after starring at Raymond James Stadium for two years as a member of the South Florida Bulls.
Following one year each at Michigan State and Iowa State before transferring back to Tampa Bay to finish his collegiate career on an NCAA hardship waiver and working to support his widowed mother, who had been in a serious car accident, McKenzie starred for the Bulls immediately. He became one of the most productive players in the program’s history, leading the team in tackles in each of his two seasons, and totaling 237 stops, which is the most tackles ever by a USF player over a two-year period, and was a first-team All-Big East performer as a senior in 2008.
McKenzie loves the fact that he can train in his own backyard where he can work to improve his pro career while keeping an eye on the continued rise of the USF program.
“It’s been a blessing. I’m from here, so I have no other choice but to stay here,” McKenzie said. “There are so many great training facilities around the Bay area and my teammates have been everywhere training. We’ll get together a couple of times a week at USF and doing stuff over there, and hanging out with the guys is great.”
McKenzie, who has impressed the team’s star players ranging from Freeman to 15-year cornerback Ronde Barber with his serious, student-of-the-game mentality and approach to football, has great leadership qualities and demonstrated that ability in his one year at Iowa State and at USF. Despite being a relative newcomer to the Buccaneers with little production as of yet in his fledgling NFL career, McKenzie’s work ethic has earned him instant credibility with his teammates, and he has worked hand-in-hand with Freeman to help increase the turnout at Tampa Bay’s voluntary offseason workouts.
“Josh was born with it. He has special leadership qualities that I think I have, too. It’s something that you are born with,” McKenzie said. “Ever since Josh first contacted me about getting guys together I have tried to show my leadership as well in trying to organize stuff at USF and getting guys over there to work out together.”
McKenzie, who was signed by Tampa Bay after he was waived by New England on November 6, was promoted from the Bucs practice squad to the active roster on December 14 after fellow linebacker Quincy Black was placed on injured reserve with a broken forearm. Active for Tampa Bay’s final three games of the season, McKenzie recorded five special teams tackles and saw limited snaps on defense in goal line situations and as an extra inside linebacker in the Bucs’ 3-4 defense against Seattle and New Orleans, where he recorded the first three tackles of his NFL career.
“It was great to be back out there on defense and play football again,” McKenzie said of his playing time at the end of Tampa Bay’s 10-6 season. “Since I came to the Buccaneers and going to practice and trying to perform at a high level day in and day out, I have been preparing myself to be here for an entire season. I’m feeling great. My body is feeling great from when I tore my ACL a while back in New England. Now I have an opportunity to start, and start from scratch just like everybody else. I’m very excited. I’m very excited for my future here and to do what I have to do to be a member of this team long-term.”
The Buccaneers’ linebacker position is in flux right now with starters Barrett Ruud and Quincy Black and reserves Adam Hayward and Niko Koutouvides scheduled to hit free agency. The departure of either Ruud or Black could open a starting spot for McKenzie to compete for after he spent last year cross-training at both middle and weakside linebacker. McKenzie says he can play all three linebacker positions and doesn’t have a preference where he plays as long as he gets the opportunity to help the team.
“To be honest with you, I’m just trying to be a linebacker and training to get better every day and doing what I have to do to excel on the football field this year,” McKenzie said. “When we get back, Coach [Joe] Baker will tell me which position he wants me to play and I will excel at that position and be the best that I can be for my team. I’ll just go from there. I don’t know what they want me to play or what the game plan is. I’m just preparing myself for the season and when it’s time for them to point me in a direction I can play it.
“I take a lot of pride in being a big hitter. Whether I am playing Sam, Mike or Will, wherever the coach wants me to play, I’ll play. Shoot, if he wants me to play D-end, I will. Wherever I play I’m going to strike people as hard as I can.”
At the end of the 2010 season, Baker was excited to see how fast McKenzie picked up the playbook and was able to become a factor as a reserve linebacker without the benefit of going to training camp in Tampa Bay last year.
“Tyrone is doing great,” Baker said at the time. “He’s real physical. The thing you notice immediately is how smart he is. He’s doing a great job and he’s impressed me with how quickly he’s learned things. He’s able to play Mike or Will for us. He’s shown good aggressiveness, speed and toughness. He’s got a good, physical nature. He’s got size. We’re real excited about him.”
At 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, McKenzie is one of the biggest linebackers on Tampa Bay’s roster. Even with rigorous offseason training designed to increase his speed and become a faster player, the USF product has not lost any size.
“I feel great at my size,” McKenzie said. “I feel really great. Right now, I’m 245 and that was my size at the end of last season. I’ll weigh what the coaches want me to weigh, but I feel great at this weight. I’m at the exact same weight I was at while we were playing [at the end of last year].”
Despite not having the benefit of the offseason coaching from Baker and head coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, McKenzie said that he has not only picked up the entire defensive playbook, but that he could start at middle linebacker if the team cannot re-sign Ruud because he has learned all of the defensive audibles and adjustment calls, too.
“Yes, I can,” McKenzie said. “Since Day One when I got here I grabbed on to Coach Baker and was like a sponge. If it weren’t for the lockout I would probably be at Coach Baker’s house right now. I love the game of football and I want to be accountable to my teammates. If they want me to play middle linebacker, I’ll play it. I can play it. I’ll do whatever I can to help the team. I’ll put the work in and be there until midnight every night to make sure I’m on top of my game so I can make sure everyone else is on top of their game.”
But because of the lockout, McKenzie is forced to study his playbook without Baker’s tutelage and work out at USF and other facilities rather than at One Buccaneer Place. He insists that he and Freeman and their teammates are doing the best they can to prepare for the coming season with the players’ own version of organized team activities (OTAs).
“It varies, but it’s a big number,” McKenzie said of the regular turnout at the practices. “In a short period of time by being here only half the season, I really got to know all the guys and have helped to get them to come out and work with us. I know that everyone is doing what he has to do to get ready for the season with his own training. You can see that everybody is in shape and everybody is accountable for each other. That’s a huge word for us going into this offseason – accountable. There are a lot of guys that want to be pros and be a part of this and to be accountable. Everybody is spread out across the country, but when we all come back together you can see that guys are doing what they need to do.
“The Saints are doing a great job of organizing themselves, but we’re doing some great stuff over here as well. It’s great to get a little bit of attention to let all of our fans know that we are all getting together, but truthfully, we are all out there just trying to get ready for the season under the radar. This [lockout] could end at any moment and we have to be ready. We have a lot of guys that live in the Bay area and we are trying to take this to another level, and we’re working on getting the entire team together in a couple weeks for one big OTA. I can’t wait.”
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