TAMPA — As if trying to make an NFL team as an undrafted rookie weren't enough of a challenge, linebacker Nate Askew is doing that now while making the transition to playing defense as well.
"I'm still learning the position a little bit," Askew said Friday after the first practice of Bucs rookie minicamp.
Askew, 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, emerged as a playmaking linebacker at Texas A&M last year, but only after spending his first three seasons as a receiver, giving him the kind of untapped potential that's well-suited for the final spots on an NFL roster.
"For Nate, you notice him. Big, strong, fast, but he's green," said coach Lovie Smith, who saw Askew in person at Texas A&M's pro day, then brought him to Tampa for a predraft visit. "He came into A&M as a receiver and now, having him make that move, he has potential. But you know, potential is scary sometimes. He has a long way to go, but it will be fun watching him."
Askew, 22, has a linebacker's size, having added 15 pounds in the past year since his position switch, and he still has the speed that impressed his fellow receivers at Texas A&M.
"He's a great athlete. He was the fastest guy on the team at one point," said receiver Mike Evans, the Bucs' first-round pick and another of four A&M players at rookie minicamp. "Then he bulked up a little bit, got a little heavier, and then I probably was the fastest. But he can jump high, he can run, can cover guys in the slot."
Askew was a promising receiver in high school in San Antonio, catching 24 touchdowns in his final three seasons. He chose A&M over offers from Florida State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, but had limited success, catching just nine passes in his first three years.
When A&M needed help at linebacker, coach Kevin Sumlin turned to Askew, who made the switch and tied for the team lead with three interceptions and finished with 38 tackles.
"I progressed during the year, week by week, got better," said Askew, who returned an interception for a touchdown against Sam Houston State, giving him a defensive score to go with one touchdown reception. "I'm trying to pick it up where I left off last season. I'm learning new things, I have a great linebacker coach (former Bucs LB Hardy Nickerson) to help me out, and it's going well."
Linebacker is one position where an undrafted rookie could make the 53-man roster. Tampa Bay has four solid linebackers in starters Lavonte David and Mason Foster, as well as strongside linebackers Jonathan Casillas and Dane Fletcher, but the rest of the options at the position have little to no NFL playing experience. Such a player would be counted on to contribute on special teams, where Askew's speed and size would be an asset in kick coverage, even as he continues to hone his instincts as a linebacker.
His biggest leap in the past year has been a mental one, learning to think like a linebacker, to read and react to an offensive play from a different view, putting himself in the right position to make plays.
"I was kind of delayed with that when I first moved to linebacker, because I was so offensive-minded," said Askew, who is getting a look at weakside linebacker, as a potential backup to David. "Now I'm able to see different things from a defensive perspective and able to get to the ball better now."