TAMPA — From small-town kid to small-school prospect to undrafted rookie, linebacker Luke Rhodes understands well the underdog role he faces this summer, trying to earn a spot on the Bucs' final roster.
"Being an underdog, it's motivation in its own," said Rhodes, who starred at Division I-AA William & Mary as a four-year starter but wasn't drafted, signing with Tampa Bay for a $2,500 signing bonus. "I'm self-motivated to begin with, so it wouldn't matter if I was drafted or where I came from."
Rhodes, with good size at 6 feet 2 and 242 pounds, has been overlooked before — when he graduated from high school in Hollidaysburg, Pa. (pop. 5,795), his only scholarship offer came from the Tribe, and he redshirted in 2011, working on the scout team his first year on campus.
He turned into not only a playmaker but a rare leader — in 122 years of W&M football, he's one of 11 players to be a team captain for more than one season.
"The thing that stands out is the consistency of his work ethic," said Jimmye Laycock, the head coach at the Williamsburg, Va., school since 1980. "You talk about leadership — a lot of people can get on people, but he set a tremendous example for our players, whether it's in practice, the weight room, offseason conditioning. He worked extremely hard, and when it was time for a game, he was ready to play."
William & Mary is better known for producing NFL coaches than players — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin went there, as did Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who interviewed for the Bucs' head coaching job in January.
"I keep close tabs on my alma mater — it's a great program," said Bucs linebackers coach Mark Duffner, who played for the Tribe and graduated in 1975. "I had friends that said, 'Hey, Duff, you better keep an eye on this guy,' and we did. He's a guy we certainly took a close look at."
Tampa Bay's backup linebacker jobs are fairly wide open, and this week, Rhodes had shown enough in offseason workouts to work as the second-string middle linebacker in the team's three-day minicamp. An undrafted rookie such as Rhodes or Auburn's Cassanova McKinzy has a real chance to make the roster.
"Oh, shoot, yeah," Duffner said. "It's a great opportunity for a rookie, a chance to compete at linebacker and on special teams. He's got a wide-open door to take advantage of."
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter hedged his praise of Rhodes this week by reminding that it's June, with noncontact practices designed to teach a new defensive scheme more than anything else, and that September is still a long way off.
But middle linebacker is, as much as any defensive position, a mental challenge, tasked with lining up the defense and relaying the correct call on the field, as rookie Kwon Alexander was able to do well last season.
Rhodes is well equipped to handle the physical challenge of the NFL — he bench-pressed 225 pounds 29 times at his pro day in the spring, a mark that was one rep short of the most by any linebacker at the NFL combine.
"I'm making sure I get the mental part down, so when the physical part comes, I can just play," he said. "I'm just coming in every day and taking advantage of every opportunity I'm given. I'm trying to work my way up as high and as fast as I can."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.