TAMPA — The alarm goes off at 5:10 a.m. each day, and the education of Kwon Alexander begins again.
The Bucs' second-year middle linebacker — who doesn't turn 22 until Wednesday — was in many ways a mirror image of Jameis Winston on the team's defense last season, thrust into a central, crucial role on his side of the ball.
Alexander made splash plays and made mistakes as a rookie, and now he is tasked with learning a new defense, relaying a defensive call, reading the opponent and putting teammates in proper position. He decided his best strategy was to mirror Winston's study habits, however early that meant rising.
"I told myself that I'm going to have to sacrifice for this team, and for us to go to the Super Bowl and be the No. 1 defense I'm going to have to get up early," said Alexander, a fourth-round pick out of LSU a year ago. "So I've been getting up early, me and Jameis get up the same time, we leave at the same time. I told him before we got to camp, 'I'm coming with you,' and we've just been rocking ever since. He's been doing good, and I've been doing good, so it's going to be a good season."
For first-year coach Dirk Koetter, who hired former Falcons head coach Mike Smith to run his defense, the sight of player and assistant coach at work each morning is a sign of the improvements the team could make on defense.
"I love how Kwon's working with Smitty," Koetter said after Monday's morning practice. "It's great to see when I'm going down the hallway every morning at 7 o'clock … and Kwon and Smitty are in there on the chalkboard having a 45-minute one-on-one. It's awesome to see Smitty sitting at a desk and Kwon standing at the board with a grease pen in his hand. It's awesome. As a guy that's a quarterback coach to see Smitty and Kwon in there in the mornings does my heart good."
The Bucs went 0-4 to finish last season while Alexander was serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy. In the offseason, Alexander asked Winston, the No. 1 overall pick last season, how he could acquire better study habits. So Winston sought the assistance of one of the league's best linebackers at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
"Kwon always asks me like, 'How do you study?' and I was like, 'Man, I'm not a middle linebacker, you've got to ask (Panthers linebacker) Luke Kuechly, or one of the main guys,' " Winston said. "So he reached out to (Cowboys linebacker) Sean Lee, got some information from him. And ever since then, he's been willing to just want to be the quarterback for that defense, and he's been doing a great job."
So Alexander is up at 5:10, with a quick breakfast and a half-hour study session before he even gets to Smith. As big a splash as he made last season — 93 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles — he knows he can be much better, and it starts with being smarter before the games begin.
"It feels easier. It's slowed down to me," Alexander said of his second season. "I know a lot more because I've been through it already. I know where the ball is going most of the time now. … Last year, I didn't think I did that good. This year is going to be an incredible year."
Alexander and Winston, beyond their impact rookie seasons, are both from Alabama, so there's a natural bond as they rise together each day to try and make the Bucs better on their side of the ball.
"He knows his job, he knows his worth to this team, and it's very high," Winston said. "He knows that we've got to get better every day and the only way that we're going to be better (is) if everyone individually is trying to better themselves every single day. So he took that and ran with it."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.