BRADENTON — Even while the majority of the Bucs roster assembled for a three-day player-organized minicamp, it was the conspicuous absence of a certain middle linebacker that generated nearly as much buzz as those in attendance.
Barrett Ruud, the team's leading tackler the past four seasons, was 1,500 miles away in his home state, Nebraska, perhaps wondering whether Tampa Bay has any intention of retaining him. Or maybe Ruud already has his heart set on seeking a lucrative free agent contract when the lockout ends.
Either way, the possibility of the Bucs playing 2011 without Ruud is real, making it essential for those who might replace him to be up to the task.
A couple of the leading candidates attended this week's camp, including rookie Mason Foster and former USF star Tyrone McKenzie.
Can they fill Ruud's shoes?
"I'm just going to come out and play as hard as I can like I know how, and if it's kickoff (coverage), kickoff return, starting linebacker — it doesn't matter," said Foster, a third-round draft pick out of Washington. "I'm going to play as hard as I can and help the team win."
McKenzie went so far as to call Ruud and ask that the two sit down and study film together to solidify McKenzie's grasp of the defense. When McKenzie learned Ruud had left Tampa for a while, he hopped on a flight to Nebraska, where Ruud graciously extended a helping hand.
"I flew up to Omaha, and (Ruud) drove from Lincoln," McKenzie said. "Me and him met in the lobby (of a hotel) and went over tape. That shows what kind of class he has and what kind of leadership he has.
"Barrett's a great guy. I hope to see all the guys back. But I'm not in charge of the business aspect of things. I'm here to do what I have to do to get the job done."
McKenzie needs the reinforcement, given his limited time on the roster last season. After his release from New England, which drafted him in the third round in 2009, McKenzie joined the Bucs practice squad in November and was promoted to the active roster in December.
Foster, meanwhile, is capable of playing all three linebacker spots, but the Bucs intend to start by teaching him the middle linebacker position.
"(Coaches said) pretty much to learn all three," Foster said. "They want me to be interchangeable. They definitely want me to learn (middle linebacker) first because it's going to be the toughest."
The Bucs face a decision at strong-side linebacker, too. Quincy Black, who has started the past two seasons, and key backup Adam Hayward could become free agents.
Former Florida State standout Dekoda Watson spent his rookie season last fall learning the position and later stepped into a more prominent role after Black was lost for the season in December with a broken arm.
Watson shared the position with Hayward and showed promise. There's a potential opportunity for him in his second year because the Bucs have not been shy about promoting young players.
"That shows the maturity and how smart the coaches are," he said. "Then it's the players and how they perform on the field.
"I know we're young, but they drafted us for a reason. They see a quality that we have, and they want us to display it."
Already, McKenzie said, he sees a difference in Watson.
"Dekoda is prepared," McKenzie said. "I plan on meeting with Dekoda and just reviewing all this stuff with him in the next couple weeks. He was actually on top of his game (Thursday) and the past couple of days.
"A guy like that, you know he's been grabbing his playbook. That shows his maturity."
And depending on the team's decision on Ruud and other topics, that's something the Bucs will need in large doses, and soon.