TAMPA — Almost exactly one year ago, cornerback E.J. Biggers received word that his shoulder injury would force the Bucs to place him on injured reserve, ending his rookie season before it began in earnest.
For many players, this often is the last time they are seen or heard. There are no practices to attend, no game plans to learn. Many players banished to injured reserve do only the minimum — go to rehab, go home.
Hey, the paychecks come either way.
But something coach Raheem Morris said to Biggers at that pivotal moment stuck with him, prompting Biggers to take a different route.
"Coach told me from the first day they put me on IR, 'Look, we're going to need you,' " said Biggers, 23. "He told me to make sure that I was around and be ready. That was so inspirational to me."
Little did Morris know then that the Bucs would need Biggers this much this soon. On Sunday, this second-year player who has never participated in a regular-season game will be the starting left cornerback for the Bucs in their season opener against the Browns, pressed into action by Aqib Talib's one-game suspension for a violation of the league's conduct policy.
And while it might seem a player this inexperienced couldn't possibly be ready for this challenge, Biggers is anything but.
All through the 2009 season, while his fellow defensive backs prepared for upcoming games, Biggers rode shotgun with them in the video room. He listened intently in meetings. He broke down video of opposing receivers, looking for tendencies and for effective tactics to use against them.
At the time, it probably felt like a futile exercise for a guy who was destined to watch in street clothes each Sunday. But it could all pay big dividends for the Bucs now that they'll be leaning so heavily on the Western Michigan product.
"He had to do it all through film," defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. "And some guys can't do that. But he was smart enough to go in there and ask questions, watch Ronde (Barber), learn from the tape.
"He learned the nickel; he learned left corner, right corner. He knew the game plan every single week. Some guys, when they go on IR, you don't even see them around here. They check out mentally."
Said Barber: "Most guys on IR just disappear. They go work out, go meet with (the trainer). … But he was in on every single meeting. He was absorbing it."
Which means what, exactly?
"That tells me he's hungry and he wants it," Lake said.
But no amount of preparation can guarantee there won't be a dropoff with Biggers replacing one of the Bucs' best defenders. Talib typically shadows opponents' star receivers and is among the best at staying with his man step for step.
Lake and Biggers' elder teammates have been needling him all week about the gargantuan task before him.
"I was telling him earlier, 'Don't be sitting on the sideline throwing up because you're nervous,' " Barber said. "This is the real deal now."
All jokes aside, Biggers knows this is serious business.
"There's expectations for (Talib) when he's out there," Biggers said. "So I have to live up to those expectations."
One thing the North Miami Beach native has established during training camp and the preseason is his willingness to be physical, displaying as much with his sure-handed tackling. Asked if that was a trait the Bucs saw before drafting him in the seventh round last year, Lake admits it wasn't obvious on his college video. What is clear, he said, is Biggers is a fast learner.
"I don't think we saw it as much," Lake said. "But what I have seen is that there is a guy in our room (Barber) who brings it on every single play. And if you're going to ride with him on game day, you better be able to bring it. Having that kind of force in our room, if you don't bring it, he doesn't want you out there with him."
Said Biggers: "Ronde doesn't care who you are or how big you are. That's the mentality in that defensive backs room. And you have to live up to it. When you play with somebody who has done that for so long, that just becomes the expectation. If you're going to turn down hits, you probably don't need to be in that room."
Turns out, Biggers fits in just fine. All he must do now is prove he belongs somewhere else: the starting lineup.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]