TAMPA — The NFL schedule-makers weren't kind to the Bucs in opening their season with two road games. The challenge is especially daunting for rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.
The former Wharton High and Gators star lined up on his second play in Sunday's season opener at Atlanta against All-Pro Julio Jones, the NFL's leading receiver last year.
This weekend, Hargreaves goes up against a certain Hall of Famer in the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald, who caught his 100th career touchdown pass in Arizona's opener last week and is a nine-time Pro Bowl selection
"First two weeks in the NFL, it's 'Hey, welcome,' " Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "To have a rookie corner playing both nickel and corner every snap in the first game, I think it says a whole lot about what kind of football player he's going to be long term."
Hargreaves' resilience showed on the Falcons' second drive. Atlanta had a 59-yard pass play on what looked to be a defensive miscommunication that involved the rookie. On the next play, Jones — 5 inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Hargreaves' 5 feet 10 and 205 — blocked Hargreaves and drove him onto his back.
On the next play, Hargreaves sped around Jones to make a tackle for no gain, part of a red-zone defensive stop that held the Falcons to a field goal.
"I'm never going to say I played well," Hargreaves said after evaluating his first game. "That's just how I am. I have to keep working and keep getting better. There were obviously some things I need to work on."
NFL cornerbacks aren't always thrown into the fire like this. Among the Bucs, Brent Grimes got his first start three years out of college, and Alterraun Verner didn't get a tackle until his third NFL game.
Hargreaves didn't take a snap off in Sunday's 31-24 win, working as an outside corner and sliding inside to slot corner in the nickel package. He has a strong inner confidence that gives him the swagger to line up against one of the NFL's best without flinching.
"He believes in his mind that he belongs on the field on with all those guys," fellow corner Jude Adjei-Barimah said. "If you can win the mental part before the game starts, it'll help you on the field automatically. His success has been a shock to people because he's a rookie, but for us who have been around him, we know that's the guy he came here to be."
In the locker room after Sunday's game, Hargreaves conceded there was "a lot of messing up," with different roles in a complex new defense that require a high level of communication in changing coverages.
Coach Dirk Koetter said the challenge of throwing at Hargreaves, even in practice, is that he makes up ground in a hurry, as seen in his two preseason interceptions. "That kid can close," Koetter said. "He had an interception in practice (Thursday) where it looked like it was going to be open, and he closed it, came underneath the receiver and picked it. He's got a burst, and then he's got good ball skills on top of it. A really good burst."
Cornerback might be the team's most improved position. The 2015 Bucs allowed opponents to complete an NFL-high 70 percent of their passes and had just 11 interceptions, two from cornerbacks.
In new starters Hargreaves and Grimes, there's hope that big plays can come from where they'd been sorely lacking.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy called Hargreaves a ball hawk.
"He's always around the ball and has the ability to make every play," McCoy said. "As a rookie, opening day, Georgia Dome, you're going to make some mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes opening day. … He's going to make a lot of plays for us."
Hargreaves, 21, will have his hands full Sunday with Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, who combined for 3,067 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns last season. The next week brings his first home game and a relatively easy challenge against the Rams, but his mentality is to expect the best from every opponent.
"Every week's a big week. There's going to be some guy on the other side of the ball that's an All-Pro or Pro Bowler," he said. "So week in, week out, we've got to play games how we know how to play, stay together as a team and hopefully keep winning."