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Tampa Bay Buccaneers end experiment as Jermaine Phillips moves back to safety from linebacker

TAMPA

If the last several months of Jermaine Phillips' career have been a blur, then the next few weeks probably will be a whirlwind.

The ultimate team player, Phillips has officially been moved back to safety from weakside linebacker, the position he switched to during the offseason at coach Raheem Morris' suggestion.

Phillips' transition to linebacker is, at best, "kind of on hold right now," Morris conceded. Phillips hasn't practiced at linebacker this week and has worked full time at his original position.

The move becomes necessary, Morris said, because of the lack of depth at safety, brought about by the four-game suspension of starting free safety Tanard Jackson for a violation of the league substance-abuse policy. That suspension starts in Week 1.

Even if necessary, it's a dramatic move to make less than three weeks before the regular season. The change also calls for inexperienced Geno Hayes to become the likely weakside starter.

The decision also leaves some unanswered questions. Once Jackson returns, what then? Does Phillips, one of the team's better defenders, remain at safety?

"My long-term (plan) is going (back) to linebacker," Morris said of Phillips. "I just think he has a chance for a second career there. I could be wrong, but I thought he had a chance for a second career like Rodney Harrison with the Patriots. Rod Woodson was a corner but went to safety. Players like that, they move around. He could be a 30-year-old special player."

What also will have a bearing on the outcome is the play of former FSU standout Hayes, a 2008 sixth-round pick who figures to have competition from Adam Hayward for the starting job.

Another question: Can Phillips re-adjust on the fly given the team's new defensive scheme? And he's playing free safety rather than his original position, strong safety.

"Right now, we're just trying to get him acclimated to safety," Morris said. "He's been (practicing) mostly free because there's a little bit less reads over there, a little bit easier to teach. But they all will be interchangeable.

"Last year, we put in quarters (coverage) and (Phillips) played a bunch of it," Morris added. "There's a lot of carryover. It's just translating the verbiage."

Morris will use Phillips, Sabby Piscitelli and Will Allen as a three-man rotation at the two safety positions until Jackson returns. The Bucs used three last year, with Piscitelli seeing time as the No. 3. Morris said he was concerned about the dropoff after Allen, a former starter, saying he was not convinced using journeyman Donte Nicholson as part of the rotation would work.

Asked if he was making the decision, in part, because of Piscitelli's pair of costly mistakes against Jacksonville on Saturday, Morris objected.

"I don't hit the panic button because Sabby got beat for a touchdown," he said. "You need three (safeties). Every year, somebody's broken a forearm, somebody's got a stinger, somebody's knocked themselves out. We did it last year."

Morris approached Phillips about a position change earlier in the year, and though Phillips agreed to try it, he admitted it was something of an experiment. Even Morris said recently the team wouldn't know whether the move was a success until Phillips saw live action at a position much more physical than safety.

In two preseason games, Phillips seemed to have less impact at linebacker than at his original position, though Morris pointed to a sure-handed open-field tackle of Jaguars back Maurice Jones-Drew on Saturday night.

Morris said, "I was starting to see something special out of Jermaine. He was learning how to play the position. He was starting to get confidence."

Just as critical as the moves at safety is how the linebackers are affected.

Phillips was expected to start on the weakside, but Hayes now steps in and essentially takes over for Derrick Brooks, the future Hall of Famer who was released in February.

"How Geno plays is going to determine a lot of things," Morris said. "Geno will get the first crack at it. It causes you to do some shuffling of the deck. But we're prepared for it. These guys have been getting a lot of reps. They're young, they're fast and they're explosive."

And now Hayes, in particular, will be tested like never before.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers end experiment as Jermaine Phillips moves back to safety from linebacker 08/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 10:01am]
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