TAMPA — E.J. Biggers doesn't need his dreads to turn heads, although the Bucs cornerback is easily recognized by what won't fit under his helmet.
Getting noticed for his play also is no longer a problem. Take the preseason opener at Miami.
A seventh-round pick out of Western Michigan in 2009, Biggers spent Saturday night at Sun Life Stadium making a personal highlight reel.
He shut out Brandon Marshall, who has caught more than 100 passes in each of the past three seasons. He led the team with four solo stops, including consecutive tackles of running back Ricky Williams inside the Bucs 15.
Blitzing from Ronde Barber's slot corner spot on the next play, Biggers recovered a fumble by quarterback Tyler Thigpen.
"I asked him was he hot or was it his game?" Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "Right now, Biggers has got to go out there and show us. If he was hot, he had a good football game. If that's his game, he'll come out week to week and do that."
The Bucs hoped to see a lot more of Biggers last season.
He was coming on fast in training camp and mentioned as the defensive equivalent of Sammie Stroughter, a seventh-rounder from Oregon State who went on to catch 31 passes as a rookie. But Biggers suffered a season-ending shoulder injury one week into the regular season.
"Everything happens for a reason," Biggers said. "When I was hurt, I heard from each guy in the secondary saying there are things everybody goes through and to just keep working hard and you'll be here next year; you'll be able to help us."
The Bucs are trying to find an eventual replacement for Barber, the 35-year-old who is entering the final year of his contract. That's why they used a third-round pick on Vanderbilt cornerback Myron Lewis, who missed most of the offseason and Saturday's game with a hamstring strain.
Third-year pro Elbert Mack (5 feet 10, 175 pounds) who had three interceptions in 2009, was the Bucs' third cornerback last season. Biggers is, well, bigger (6-0, 180) and more physical than Mack.
"The first thing we look for is toughness," Bucs defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. "We see a lot of guys miss tackles, but maybe they missed it because they're not coached right. But if we see a guy who's tough and will put his face on somebody … now we know we can work him and mold him into what we want him to be. And Biggers is definitely willing to tackle anybody."
What surprises Lake is Biggers made it to the seventh round.
There aren't many diamonds in the rough in the NFL. But Biggers was overlooked.
As a senior quarterback at North Miami Beach High in 2004, the Miami Herald named him its offensive player of the year. He wound up at Western Michigan, a Division I-A school but not in a power conference. And despite 16 career interceptions there, he wasn't invited to the scouting combine.
"It's really unreal because with the amount of work all 32 teams do, for a guy with his size and his speed to fall through the cracks — and he was not really at a small school," Lake said.
"For that to happen, I've got to say is on everybody's scouts in the NFL. We at least were lucky enough to get him in the seventh round."
The Bucs have had success finding cornerbacks from smaller schools able to play the Cover 2 in the mid to late rounds.
"Last year, we saw a guy who had good movement skills from Western Michigan," general manager Mark Dominik said. "He had a great workout in his pro day also. We went back and watched the tape harder and harder and kept breaking down more film and felt comfortable that here was a young, small school corner but had the size, speed and measurables.
"But the thing that helped us so much was that he was willing to be a tackler. He wasn't there maybe strength-wise yet, but he showed the heart for it."
Biggers admits he still has a long way to go. Careers are not made in one preseason game. But he made good use of his year on injured reserve, watching film and getting more comfortable with his responsibilities in Morris' defense.
"I learned a lot more and felt a lot more comfortable out there this year watching film and learning from the older guys," Biggers said. "(Aqib) Talib, Ronde, E-Mack, (Tanard Jackson) — all those guys talked to me every day and give me little pointers here and there. This year, it felt like I was playing high school ball again."
And turning heads.
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.