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Now that he has his rookie season under his belt, Tampa Bay second-year linebacker Marquis Cooper is ready to seriously compete for a starting job in 2005.

A third-round draft pick out of Washington in 2004, Cooper told Pewter Report at this week’s organized team activity workouts that he feels much more comfortable playing in Tampa Bay’s defense now than he did one year ago.

“Last year was tough because I came into the season in an entirely new program,” said Cooper. “I didn’t know the whole playbook, so I had to study it really hard. With a year under my belt, I feel like I know this playbook and this defense. Instead of thinking so much, now I can react because I know the stuff pretty well.”

Of course, this time last year Cooper wasn’t really thinking about winning a starting job. Instead, Cooper, who wasn’t permitted to join the Bucs for their OTAs until the beginning of June due to Washington’s late graduation, got off to a late start in Tampa Bay, and it apparently showed early on.

“He missed like four weeks of OTA sessions and individual sessions with me from not being here, so when he got here he was swimming to say the least,” Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry said of Cooper.

But once the Bucs reported to training camp, Cooper slowly but surely began to show the athleticism and speed that convinced Tampa Bay to invest a first-day draft pick on him.

The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Cooper spent all of training camp and most of the preseason playing behind weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks. But just before Tampa Bay’s fourth and final preseason contest, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and Barry decided to make a change, moving Ryan Nece from the strong side to the weak side and Cooper over from the weak side to the strong side.

As if learning one position wasn’t tough enough, the Bucs challenged Cooper even more by crosstraining him during his rookie campaign. However, in Tampa Bay’s defensive scheme, the linebacker positions are considered interchangeable, which has made it possible for several of Tampa Bay’s linebackers to switch and/or play different positions without much difficulty on the second level of the defense.

Take Shelton Quarles and Jeff Gooch, for example. Gooch started off his career in Tampa Bay as a Will linebacker, but he later made moves to Sam, back to Will and then to Mike linebacker last season. Quarles started off as a Will, but like Gooch, he eventually moved to Sam and currently starts at the Mike linebacker spot.

“We look at those guys as interchangeable,” said Barry. “Cooper proved that he could play Will, but then we didn’t have a backup Sam behind Ian Gold last year, so we moved Marquis to Sam.”

Tampa Bay’s defense expects a lot out of its second-year players, which doesn’t seem to be a problem for Cooper, who has added six pounds of muscle this offseason to get up to 218 pounds and expects to compete for a starting job this season.

The only problem for Cooper, 23, is the Buccaneers have already announced their starting linebackers — Derrick Brooks, Quarles and Gooch. Those three players are projected to start at the weakside, middle and strongside linebacker spots, respectively.

Although the Bucs have tentatively set their starting three at the linebacker positions, the team completely expects its backups, including Cooper, to push the starters for playing time.

“There’s no doubt that Jeff Gooch is our starting Sam,” said Barry. “Marquis is our backup Sam and Ryan Nece is our backup Will, but that doesn’t mean that Derrick Brooks and Jeff Gooch can go on cruise control. I expect Ryan Nece to stay on Brooks’ heals, and I expect Marquis Cooper to nip at Jeff Gooch’s heals. If they’re not owning up to the starting role there might be change.”

According to Cooper, he really doesn’t have a preference in terms of which side to play on. He just wants to play, period.

“I don’t really care where, I just want to play,” said Cooper. “Those two positions are pretty interchangeable and I feel pretty comfortable playing both of them.”

Although Cooper has spent most of his young career playing as a Sam linebacker, Barry suggested that Tampa Bay’s original plan of drafting Cooper and having him eventually succeed Brooks, whose salary cap value jumps up to $11.657 million in 2006, could still come to fruition.

“It’s all about competition,” said Barry. “We feel Marquis will bring great competition for Jeff Gooch as the Sam linebacker spot. That’s not to say that a year from now Marquis won’t get moved back to Will because you never know what could happen. But I think it’s a credit to Marquis that he’s got versatility, and in this league you need versatility, especially at that linebacker spot.”

Fortunately for Cooper, he’s had the opportunity to groom behind some of the best linebackers in the NFL, including Brooks and Quarles, both of whom have played in the Pro Bowl. Cooper said he continues to learn from the veterans while pushing them for playing time and/or a starting role.

“They did everything,” Cooper said of Brooks, Quarles, Gooch and Gold. “They are great mentors. They taught me different things, and I watched them a lot, so I learned. There’s nothing like learning from the best, and that’s what I did last year and continue to do now.”

But before he can beat out Gooch for the strongside linebacker job, Cooper must first prove that he’s worthy of being a starter, and that’s an opportunity he’s receiving right now and will continue to get during training camp and preseason.

“Marquis is going to be a great player, but he’s got a million miles to go,” said Barry. “By no means is he there yet, but the improvements he’s made over the past year have been big. He’s still got a million miles to go, but he’s also traveled a million miles.

“If a guy is worthy of playing, we’ll get him on the field,” said Barry. “That’s the great thing about training camp and the great thing about playing four preseason games. Marquis Cooper is going to get a lot of time to show me what he can do.”

Another area Cooper realizes he must elevate his game is on special teams. Tampa Bay has lost its top three special teams tacklers from a year ago, but the good news is Cooper showed that he can make solid contributions in that particular area last year by finishing the 2004 season ranked sixth on the team in special teams tackles with 11 in 14 games.

“If I want to play, I’ve got to do what’s expected of me, and special teams was a place I had to play last year,” said Cooper. “I did what was expected of me then, and I plan on doing that again this year.”

Sure, the starting linebacker corps have been announced, sort of, but that’s not to say that Cooper can’t send Gooch to the bench like Nece did to Dwayne Rudd back in 2003 after the second-year player (Nece) showed up the veteran (Rudd) by simply making more plays than him in practice and in the preseason.

“Ryan Nece is the perfect example,” said Barry. “Ryan went into training camp as the backup and Dwayne Rudd was the starter. Four weeks later, we all know what happened. The way to make a starter great is to get a backup that can bite on his heals.”

Should Cooper lose out on the competition with Gooch, it won’t be a huge disappointment. After all, Gooch, a 10th-year veteran, is much more seasoned than Cooper, and Gooch even started 16 games for the Bucs at the Sam linebacker spot back in 1998.

But don’t expect Cooper to be on the bench for long. With Brooks’ escalating cap value and age (32), and 30-year-old Gooch’s cap value scheduled to jump from $715,000 to $2.055 million in 2006, it’s only a matter of time before Cooper gets the opportunity to showcase his abilities on a full-time basis in Tampa Bay.

This story is intended to be read by PewterInsider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers. Be sure to read the latest issue of Pewter Report on-line in PDF format on Buccaneers merchandise in the world.

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