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Tampa Bay Buccaneers gamble at linebacker on Jermaine Phillips

Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips and coach Raheem Morris share a laugh at training camp. Morris said Phillips’ move to linebacker was partly to give the defense more speed.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips and coach Raheem Morris share a laugh at training camp. Morris said Phillips’ move to linebacker was partly to give the defense more speed.

TAMPA — The Experimental Linebacker moved easily through the traffic, and for the moment, at least, the transition didn't seem that difficult.

Jermaine Phillips stepped through the bodies and around the questions, looking for the running back on the other side of the line. Seeing him, Phillips stepped into the hole, quick and strong enough to make you think he had done it for a lifetime.

The running back, Derrick Ward, cut back toward the middle, and Phillips turned to follow the flow. That was precisely the moment he ran into Davin Joseph, a 313-pound mass of discouragement.

Also, it was yet another reminder to Phillips the difference between playing safety and linebacker.

Every day, every play, we learn a little more about the Grand Experiment of Bucs training camp. Once a solid safety, Phillips is now a linebacker who is training on the job. He has changed positions, and with it, he has transformed from an answer into a question.

"I know some people have questions," Phillips said. "When the games start, we'll get a better idea about me in there. I'll get a better idea about me in there."

Until then, it's easy to wonder about the notion of changing Phillips' position. He was a solid safety, a big hitter, a graceful athlete. But did anyone ever look at him and think, "Hey, that guy ought to be a linebacker."

Except for Raheem Morris, that is?

This is all Morris' idea, if you want to know the truth. He kept looking at tape, and he kept seeing Phillips make plays close to the line of scrimmage. He tossed the idea around with his defensive coaches, and together, they decided it was worth trying.

It was March, and Morris called Phillips into his office. He ran a tape for Phillips with various linebackers from around the league.

"What do you think of this guy playing linebacker?" Morris asked. "How about this guy?"

Suddenly, Phillips saw his own image on the screen.

"What do you think about this guy?"

Just like that, Phillips was a linebacker.

"I just felt if you had a chance to get Jermaine, Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson all on the field at the same time, you had a chance to be a pretty fast defense," Morris said. "You have a chance to be really good. You have a chance to have some success and some splash."

If this works, then give Morris a little credit for thinking outside the box about who should be in the box. Still, there is risk involved. If this doesn't work, the Bucs will be weaker at two positions, the one Phillips left behind and the one he's headed toward. Who knows if Phillips can be an every-down linebacker? Who knows if Piscitelli is ready to inherit his old job full time?

"The thing is, Jermaine wasn't your ordinary safety," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "For seven years, Flip has played in a defense where he's spent 40 percent of his time in the box. And he's a trained killer in there. He smashes people. Even with our change on defense, athleticism, quickness and speed are the main things, and Jermaine has all of those.

"In March, this might have been a project. It isn't a project anymore."

Barry said he has seen Phillips play in the box. He has seen him take on linemen. He has seem him blow up blocking backs. But, yes, there is a difference between 40 percent of the time and all day long. That's what Phillips has to prove to earn his designation of Linebacker Reborn.

He still looks like a safety, to tell you the truth. He is lean enough to hide much of his 230 pounds. He does not look like Dick Butkus. He does not look like Lawrence Taylor. No, he does not look like Derrick Brooks.

That part of it is fine. Though Phillips is designated as the weakside linebacker, the same as Brooks, Barry will tell you they have vastly different responsibilities.

For one thing, Phillips will take a lot of responsibilities for playing against opposing tight ends. With Tony Gonzalez of Atlanta, Jeremy Shockey of New Orleans, Jason Witten of Dallas and Chris Cooley of Washington on the schedule, there are a lot of passes to cover.

"I see the potential of me playing this position," Phillips said. "It's a good idea. But when you do something as long as I've played safety, this is a big change."

What is it they say about linebackers? They wear bigger pads, they drive bigger pickups and they get bigger paychecks?

Phillips laughed. He likes his pads, and he doesn't drive a truck. But the part about the paychecks sounds like a good idea.

"I'm not a safety," he said. "And I'm not a linebacker. I'm just an athlete. I'm a little like Slash. If I had to go back to safety, I could. And I can play linebacker. I'm multi-purpose. I can do whatever they need."

Can it work?

For Morris, the answer is always the same. It had better.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers gamble at linebacker on Jermaine Phillips 08/03/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 4, 2009 7:57am]

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