Bucs general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris told future Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks he was being released so that the team’s young linebackers would have a chance to play and compete for the starting jobs that are now vacant due to the departure of Brooks and strongside linebacker Cato June.

The team pursued New Orleans’ free agent linebacker, Jonathan Vilma, hoping that his signing would not only deal a blow to a division rival, but also take the sting away from losing out on prized free agent defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and a bloody Wednesday when the team parted ways with key veterans like Brooks, June, running back Warrick Dunn and wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard.

Although the team failed to land Vilma, Tampa Bay feels confident enough in its former draft picks – Quincy Black, Geno Hayes and Adam Hayward – that a couple of starters could emerge and flank middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.

“They should be excited. This is their opportunity,” Ruud said of Black, Hayes and Hayward. “We’re all friends in the locker room, and yeah, we’re sad to see the older guys go, but this is a good opportunity for the younger guys. I was close with Ryan Nece before he left after training camp. He was the buddy I would always go out with in South Tampa because we lived close to each other. Seeing Cato go, who I would go out with also, and Brooks, who I would play some golf with, go – it’s tough to see them leave. At the same time, these guys have their chance and they have to capitalize on it.”

Black, who is a chiseled physical specimen at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds and blessed with great speed, has drawn rave reviews at One Buccaneer Place for his performance on special teams last year. Black, who was Tampa Bay’s third-round pick in 2007, led the team with 24 special teams tackles, and that has been a precursor for a bigger role on defense the following year in the past with linebackers like Ryan Nece and Shelton Quarles.

“Last year, I went out there and set a goal to lead the team in special teams tackles and I did that,” Black said. “With the moves that they made [on Wednesday], they are showing some faith in me and I want to take that and show them that they made the right moves.

“I learned a lot from Derrick and Cato. They are professionals in everything that they did. I’m going to add what I learned from those guys to my game and go out and compete for a starting spot.”

Ruud has been excited to see Black develop behind the scenes. It hasn’t been a smooth transition for the New Mexico product that played the Lobo linebacker role in college. As the Lobo, Black did everything from play off the line of scrimmage deeper than most linebackers as a quasi-safety, to rush off the edge like a defensive end. What Black rarely did was line up three yards off the line of scrimmage like conventional linebackers do, and that’s what slowed his development.

“He has some striking ability, and he’s always been a phenomenal athlete,” Ruud said of Black. “In college, his job was just to roam free and find the ball. The biggest thing for him is to learn how to play within a system. What I liked about Quincy last year was that he was in the weight room first thing in the morning when I was there. He would spend extra time watching film and taking notes. He’s made it a personal craft of his. He doesn’t just go to work and leave. He shows up and takes a lot of pride in what he does. That’s why I think he’ll really be successful.”

Black has just 11 career tackles and has played sparingly on defense since being drafted by the Bucs in 2007, but he is looking forward to playing in Jim Bates’ new aggressive 4-3 scheme, which could see Tampa Bay’s linebackers blitzing more in 2009.

“I’m still the same guy I was when I got here as far as my skills are concerned,” Black said. “Whatever they ask me to do, I’m more than willing to do that because I love football and I want to get on the field. If they want me to pass rush, I’ll do it. If they want me to drop in coverage, I’ll do it.”

The Buccaneers are equally excited about Hayes, the team’s sixth-round pick last year. Hayes subbed in for Brooks at weakside linebacker in the early part of the season and recorded eight tackles and one pass breakup after notching eight tackles, two pass breakups and one interception during the preseason.

Like Black, Hayes was a big contributor on special teams, recording seven tackles and blocking a punt and returning the ball for a touchdown against Carolina before a knee injury sidelined him for the season on November 19. Hayes was hurt covering a kick during the Bucs’ home victory over the Minnesota Vikings, but he is expected to be ready for mini-camps this spring.

“I appreciate that the team has high hopes for me and that they think highly of me, but right now, I can’t speak to how I’m going to do because my knee is not quite 100 percent,” Hayes said. “I’m still rehabbing it and getting the strength back. I didn’t have any kind of surgery. I know that’s been reported, but that’s not true. I let my body heal on it’s own. I had a partial tear of the MCL and a badly strained PCL, which is why it is taking longer than usual to heal up. When mini-camps roll around I should be ready.”

Black was impressed with Hayes’ abbreviated rookie campaign in 2008.

“Geno is a good football player,” Black said. “You don’t make it this far without being good. He makes plays. Whether it was in the preseason or when Derrick was out earlier in the season, he was in there making plays. It’s on film. He’ll hit you.”

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Hayes, a Florida State product like Brooks, was sad to see Brooks and June go, but realizes the opportunity he and his fellow young linebackers have because of their departure.

“We learned a lot from Derrick Brooks as far as keeping our composure and learning the ins and outs of the game and I have a lot of respect for Derrick,” Hayes said. “But for us, this is a steppingstone to keep moving on to the next level. This is a big deal for us and we have to keep moving on and getting better as young linebackers.

“Barrett was a big part of our leadership last year. Whenever we came to the sidelines, Coach Kiffin was talking to both he and Brooks. He’s an intelligent guy who knows everything about defense. He understands things quickly. He’s a smart guy. He’s a smart linebacker. He’s a great player and definitely deserves to be our leader now that Brooks is gone.”

Hayward, the Bucs’ sixth-round pick in 2007, has backed up Ruud in the middle of the defense, but is also in contention for a starting role on the outside in Bates’ new defense. Hayward, who is a quick learner, has spent the last two years backing up all three linebacker positions.

“He’s a guy that is kind of similar to Quincy,” Ruud said of Hayward. “I really like how hard he works, especially this last year. He puts in a lot of time and takes pride in what he does whether it is on special teams or on defense. He’s going to be looking forward to try to win a starting position, too.”

Like Black, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Hayward has been a mainstay on special teams, where he has racked up 23 tackles over the past two years. It’s been a different story on defense where he has seen limited playing time and has posted only 11 tackles, including five last year. Hayward was caught off guard by the release of Brooks and June on Wednesday, but realizes the opportunity it creates.

“It’s sudden and shocking, especially Cato June because he’s still a young player who is in his prime,” Hayward said. “He’s fast. It’s just kind of weird they would release him because it kind of makes you wonder what kind of defense we’re going to run now.”

“But I feel good about the moves from my perspective, but I’m friends with Cato and it’s hard to see him go. At the same time, this is the NFL. With Brooks being there, it was kind of holding younger, talented players back. He was great in his prime, but he’s towards the end of [his career] and it kind of jeopardizes the team in the long run with younger plays by not getting them on the field and developing them.”

Hayward said the new defensive scheme favors bigger, faster and more physical linebackers. While Brooks and June were ideal fits in the Tampa 2 because of their coverage ability, the trio of Black, June and Hayward may be more complete players for Bates because of their ability to shed blocks, tackle ballcarriers, drop in coverage and blitz.

“The way they are going, it couldn’t fit guys like Quincy and I any better,” Hayward said. “With him being 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, and me being 6-foot-1, 240 pounds and us still unbelievably fast, that’s ideal linebacker size right now.”

Black said that while Bates and linebackers coach Joe Barry like their size and athleticism, how the Bucs use their linebackers has yet to be determined. Bates has already said the Bucs won’t be running any more under and over fronts, so the under tackle position has basically vanished as tackles will now line up directly over the offensive linemen instead of in a gap. Tampa Bay could be doing away with the weakside and strongside linebacker roles, too, and just having a left and a right linebacker.

“We’re just linebackers right now,” Black said. “I’m not sure how everything is going to pan out. I’ve met with them and I’ve talked with them about my passion about loving to play football, but as far as schemes or anything like that, we haven’t gone over that yet. It’s hard for me to tell you anything I really know nothing about.”

Although the team lost out on a prime talent like Vilma, the Bucs will try to add another linebacker via free agency or the draft for competition. But regardless of whoever the team brings in, Ruud is excited about the trio of young linebackers that will be vying for starting jobs on either side of him.

“Everybody is always looking for the fastest, hardest-hitting guys out there, but I think Raheem wants to establish a mentality with the whole team that we’re not going to ever get out-hit,” Ruud said. “We have linebackers on this team that will hit you and they play fast. You play fast by playing smart and hustling. There are a lot of guys who are fast on the stopwatch, but playing fast means knowing what you are doing and where you are going and being physical when you get there. That’s what Raheem is really after.”

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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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