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Rookie Vernon Hargreaves leading Bucs' defensive resurgence

TAMPA — Vernon Hargreaves wore a microphone for the Bucs' 14-5 win over the Seahawks a couple of weeks ago and, to be honest, the defense knocked them silly.

Although he says he hasn't heard the segment aired by NFL Films, Hargreaves was having fun. So much fun that only a few words interrupted what was essentially a laugh track. Har­greaves has the kind of laugh that makes you laugh. Almost high-pitched enough to qualify as a squeal, but in staccato. The Joker's laugh.

"You know, they say I laugh like a hyena," Hargreaves said. "I thought that was pretty funny. A few people on Instagram, they want to call me the Hyena now. Yeah, that's cool. But everybody liked it, and I'm going to keep it up."

The rookie cornerback has every reason to yuk it up with the Bucs. His team has won four in a row and at 7-5 sits in a virtual tie atop the NFC South with Atlanta. The biggest turnaround has occurred on defense, which over the past month has allowed a league-low 13.8 points per game while producing 11 turnovers.

Hargreaves has been at the center of it all. Not only has he played a solid right corner, he has pulled double duty by moving inside at the nickel slot position after the four-game suspension of Jude Adjei-Barimah. Then on Sunday, he was forced to return punts when Adam Humphries suffered a concussion.

Hargreaves also produced the play of the game when he tipped a pass from Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by linebacker Lavonte David.

"He wore a lot of hats (Sunday), and one of the hats you're not expecting him to wear is one of leader," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said.

The journey from first-round pick out of Florida by way of Wharton High to game-changer has not been a seamless one for Hargreaves.

Like the rest of the defense under new coordinator Mike Smith, he struggled earlier this season. The plan was to play him at nickel, an entirely different position where you have to be stout enough to support the run inside but cover receivers who have a two-way go on every play. But he was too valuable to take off the field, so he pulled double duty until Week 4 when Adjei-Barimah moved inside.

But like the rest of the defense, Hargreaves' low point came with losses to the Raiders in overtime and to Atlanta five days later in which the Bucs yielded more than 1,000 yards of offense and eight touchdown passes.

"Definitely. That Oakland game and that Atlanta game, that was the welcome to the NFL game for me," Hargreaves said. "Both of those games, I had a rough one. But my confidence doesn't falter. I got comfortable. Do I learn from it? The guys have my back. They told me not to worry about it. Brent (Grimes), the long-time vet, said, 'Let it go or it's going to kill you.' After that, I just decided to have fun with it."

And so he did.

Hargreaves also went to work in the film room, picking up little nuances of route combinations and possible tipoffs by receivers. With the Chargers backed up to their own 7, he read the short in-route to receiver Tyrell Williams and got a hand on it, resulting in the pick-six by David. Then with the Chargers driving for a potential tying touchdown, Hargreaves and safety Keith Tandy talked of an out-and-up likely to be run by Dontrelle Inman. Tandy leapt high and sealed the win with an interception.

"The biggest difference I've noticed in Vernon since the mini-bye (after the Thursday night loss to the Falcons) is it seems like he's having fun out there more. Kind of like Jameis (Winston) last year — Jameis' coming-out party or the time that he really had to assert himself was at Atlanta when Kwon's brother had passed and Jameis really stepped up," Koetter said, referring to linebacker Kwon Alexander. "This was a different scenario, but it seemed like Vernon really came out of his shell after the Thursday night game. Sometimes rookies have to pay their homage to the leadership of the team, to the veterans. More than anything, Vernon is just having fun out there."

Look who has the last laugh now.

Rookie Vernon Hargreaves leading Bucs' defensive resurgence 12/07/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 7, 2016 9:24pm]
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