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Bucs linebacker Adam Hayward prepares to seize opportunity

TAMPA — The football from his first NFL touchdown still sits in his locker, the one linebacker Adam Hayward scooped from the turf at Raymond James Stadium after a blocked punt and carried 29 yards into the end zone Sunday against the Chargers.

Already a prized keepsake, Hayward was even more geeked that it was a commemorative football specially designed for Veterans Day.

"I like the little camouflage ribbon on there and everything," Hayward said.

It's fitting for Hayward, whose concealment on the Bucs roster has been almost a matter of pride for the sixth-year pro from Portland State.

Undetectable to many, Hayward always has been one of the most valued players for the Bucs because of his ability on special teams and to play all three linebacker positions.

With Quincy Black being placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a neck injury he suffered against the Chargers, Hayward will be counted on to start at strongside linebacker.

"Being unselfish is the only thing that's kept me around," Hayward said. "I play all three spots and can go in.

"I feel like I play well enough to be a linebacker on this team or any team. The way the situation is right now, that's my role. In case something happens, I go in for anybody at the drop of a dime."

The Bucs will use Dekoda Watson in some situations, including his current role as an edge rusher on passing downs.

"We have some flexibility, but Adam would be the most prepared, so that's probably how we'll go," coach Greg Schiano said Wednesday. "We have some different personnel groupings, different things. So there will be some other guys that play as well.

"(Hayward is) a professional. He works very hard. He stays up to speed on all three linebacker positions, and that's why I say we'll have flexibility where guys will move around. So it won't be just exclusive Adam for Quincy. There will be some other things that play out."

Black and Hayward share a bond as the only remaining members of the Bucs' 10-player draft class of 2007. Black went in the third round, Hayward three rounds later.

That's what made watching Black being carted off Sunday after a collision with Chargers running back Ryan Mathews so tough for Hayward, who doesn't care to relive the incident.

Schiano said he's confident Black will eventually return to football, but it will be several weeks before doctors can administer tests to determine the cause of the nerve damage affecting his left arm.

"What Quincy has is not like your normal thing," Schiano said. "It's not like you go to the normal doctor. You have to go see the specialist for what he has. And our doctors have been awesome in that they've been on the phone all over the country — really all over the world — talking to people about what is the best course of action here.

"I think we're all confident that he's going to eventually get back. The shame of it is he played his best game of the year on Sunday. When I talked to (linebackers coach Bob) Frazer, I had to pick him up a little because he said, 'Finally, he looked like what we know he can be.' "

Meanwhile, both Hayward and Watson played enormous roles in Sunday's win. Watson, a former FSU standout, blocked the second-quarter punt that Hayward collected and sprinted away with like a jewel thief.

Hayward hates that his opportunity to start came at the expense of Black. But he will make the most of it.

From the time he arrived in Tampa Bay, Hayward knew he'd have to learn to produce in a backup role playing mostly behind perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks. But he set career highs in special teams tackles in each of his first four seasons and was named captain of the unit in 2011.

"You don't start over a guy like Derrick," Hayward, 28, said. "But I learned a lot from him. That's my role right now, and I've got to step in and be a starter. And the best part is showing people this defense is not going to skip a heartbeat."

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@tampabay.com and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620. Follow him on Twitter at @NFLStroud.

Bucs linebacker Adam Hayward prepares to seize opportunity 11/14/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 9:23pm]
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