TAMPA — Running practice snaps with the first team in an NFL minicamp in mid June is hardly the same thing as running out of the tunnel as a starter on opening day.
After three NFL seasons spent in a support role, Bucs linebacker Dekoda Watson knows this well and wanted to make sure it was unmistakably clear.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that I've got the position," said Watson, vying to start at strong-side linebacker. "All I'm saying is that I have the opportunity. I want to make sure I clarify that."
This is Watson's best shot to earn consistent playing time. It's all coming together: opportunity, improvement, maturity. If the former Florida State standout can put all those elements together, he might enjoy the breakthrough season he has been seeking after making three starts in his first three seasons.
"Dekoda is, I think, an elite special teams player in this league, and now he's trying to become an elite linebacker," coach Greg Schiano said. "I think he's made big strides. It's all in front of him right now."
For Watson, 6 feet 2, 240 pounds, this offseason has been about taking that critical next step. The 25-year-old is fast, athletic and looks the part with superhero-sized muscles.
But holes in his game have kept him back. He has shown flashes of pass-rush talent but has had lapses in coverage. He has displayed a knack for finding the ball on special teams, but hasn't always done so on defense.
Earning a spot in the lineup won't come by default. Former Saints reserve linebacker Jonathan Casillas, signed in March, has every intention of making things tough on Watson.
"I love it. I was born a competitor," said Casillas, 26, who is 6-1, 227 pounds. "It's only going to make us better at the end of the day at the position and defensively, as a whole. I'm excited about that."
Both players are athletic, so any difference in their performances could be related to mastery of the scheme. That hasn't been a strength for Watson, who as a reserve learned multiple positions to prepare to fill in where needed. But under Schiano, his responsibilities have been limited to the strong side.
"I think Dekoda has come a long way since last January," Schiano said. "We talk about the new scheme for the quarterbacks, but it's a completely new scheme for Dekoda Watson, too. He is locked in at the (strong side) now and he's learning that position."
Watson said that's "allowed me to just be able to focus on one position," the benefits of which, he said, are "tremendous."
And he has had a little help, from an unlikely source. Watson continues to enjoy a teacher-student relationship with Quincy Black, who held the position for four seasons before suffering a neck injury last season that could end his career. Black was released this spring with an injury settlement, but he hasn't gone far.
"Quincy is still being a leader as we speak," Watson said. "He's texted me plenty of times, telling me to take advantage of the opportunity. He's trying to tell me some things to make sure that I'm ready this year. He's still being that big brother to me. He's still playing his role."
Watson always looked up to Black, and Black enjoyed helping develop his young counterpart. Watson on Wednesday recalled days when Black dragged him to the film room for extra study and how Black set the tone as a professional.
Now's the time to implement those lessons.
"Things might not always go the way you want, but your time will come," Watson said. "Right now I have an opportunity and I'm going to try to take advantage of it."