TAMPA — When tackle Chris Hovan looks around One Buc Place these days, he sees a sizable defensive hole he would love to help fill: the leadership gap left by the departure of linebacker Derrick Brooks.
"I'm just trying to hopefully pick up the ball from Derrick," Hovan said after a recent practice. "The most enjoyable experience I've ever had in my nine-year career was to be his teammate. I've never seen a veteran leader take such control over the locker room."
That means something coming from Hovan, who spent his first five seasons with the Vikings. Known for his hard-nosed style and relentless work ethic, the 6-foot-2, 296-pound lineman says he learned a lot from watching the longtime heart and soul of the Bucs defense.
"In my four years of playing with Derrick, I would just observe what he did and how he led," said Hovan, 31. "And hopefully I can take some of those lessons and apply my own leadership. I believe that you get the respect of your teammates by the way you work — in the film room, in the locker room — and outside, the way you hold yourself in the community. Those are the intangibles that every leader has, and I think Derrick Brooks exemplified that when he played for us."
Coach Raheem Morris is counting on Hovan to help on that front. "He's a veteran leader," Morris said. "He leads by example for the most part, but if he has to snatch you by the collar he will, coaches included. You've got to love that about Hovan. You have to love his demeanor. He's fun to be around. He's here every day. He's bouncing. He's just our guy, our rock."
Hovan has played 140 NFL games and made 133 starts since the Vikings drafted him 25th overall in 2000 out of Boston College. A consensus all-rookie pick, he has 549 career tackles, 211/2 sacks and seven fumble recoveries. With the Bucs, Hovan led all defensive linemen in tackles in 2005, 2006 and 2008, and he ranked second on the line in 2007 with a career-best 95 tackles.
But with defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin gone, Hovan will assume a new role apart from his heightened leadership.
In Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense and 4-3 alignment, Hovan lined up in the gaps and did his best to plug or blast through them. New coordinator Jim Bates also employs a 4-3, but more often than not Hovan and fellow tackle Ryan Sims will set up facing an offensive lineman, allowing the linebackers to shoot the gaps.
"I'll line up a little more head-up on the guard or shade either inside or outside," he said. "It will be predetermined by the strength of the defense."
Hovan played that style in Minnesota, so the adjustment is natural: "It's just a different opportunity for myself and Ryan or whoever's in there to go out and be able to make plays."
Recent voluntary team workouts at One Buc provided an opportunity for Hovan and the defense to get to know Bates and the nuances of his scheme better.
"He's a very demanding, experienced coordinator, and he wants the best out of his players," Hovan said. "As a player, I really respect that. Monte had to do what he had to do, and the guys respected his decision. Coach Bates has been a proven success — and now our job is to go out there and efficiently run the defense for him."
Hovan is excited about his new head coach, too, and sees some similarities with former Bucs secondary coach Mike Tomlin, who guided the Steelers to the Super Bowl title in February.
"I've always liked Coach Morris' style," he said. "I came in here in 2005, and I see a lot of characteristic traits in Coach Morris that I saw in Coach Tomlin. He's a young, energetic coach — very smart. I think he's got such great intangibles. Talk about running through a wall for a guy — I'd run through a brick wall for Raheem Morris.
"Over the years, we've developed a relationship where I respect him more than anybody I've ever been under. I think it's my job to help the offense win games, so I know he's going to put us in that position. He's a great leader."
Something Hovan hopes to be now, too.