TAMPA — Barrett Ruud has spent his four-year NFL career in Derrick Brooks' considerable shadow.
Ruud learned a little football and a lot about life. He also learned to lead. And it's exactly those lessons Ruud must tap into now that the locker-room leader known as "The Godfather" has seen his Tampa Bay tenure end.
Someone will have to set the tone in meetings, at practice and on the sideline. That's where Brooks, the 14-year starter at linebacker and Tampa Bay icon, was invaluable. He kept egos in check and set an example most have been smart enough to follow.
"I'm telling you," Ruud said Thursday, "when they call him 'The Don,' it really suits him."
But some of those duties now inevitably fall to players such as Ruud. "I'm excited about it, really," said Ruud, 25. "Derrick has been the leader of this team. I think you have to earn respect through your play and how you carry yourself. Hopefully I've done that."
The leadership void wasn't lost on those who made the decision Wednesday to release Brooks and four other veterans — Warrick Dunn, Cato June, Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard. The Bucs are suddenly a much younger club, something that comes with a different set of challenges.
That's why one of coach Raheem Morris' first tasks was to reach out to the core of his remaining players, including Ruud, center Jeff Faine and cornerback Ronde Barber.
"It wasn't a real long conversation," Faine said. "He basically told me to 'take the reins.' "
Faine, in his first year in Tampa Bay last season, galvanized a youthful offensive line. His role will expand with Dunn and Hilliard gone from the offensive meeting room.
Faine, 27, is ready.
"I told (Morris) it didn't need to be asked," he said. "I think it is an honor that he asked me to take that role. It's a huge responsibility, but it's a huge honor, too."
Morris isn't acting arbitrarily. He knows Faine is a savvy veteran. He knows that as a first-round pick, someone such as guard Davin Joseph is comfortable with the high expectations of his coaches. And he knows tackle Chris Hovan is among the most experienced defensive players remaining. "I think the way I've led by example is the way I'll continue to do it," said Hovan, 30. ''That's how you earn respect."
Knowing full well there will never be another, the players who remain are wise enough not to try to be Brooks.
"I might be a little more vocal now. I don't know," Ruud said. "But I don't want to change much. You can't try to be something you're not. I don't know if guys would really respond to that."
Running back Clifton Smith can talk at length about the impact the soft-spoken Dunn had on him in 2008, a rookie season that ended with Smith as the NFC's Pro Bowl return man.
Ask any young defender whom they considered their first option when questions arose. "In the meeting room, if there was a question, (Brooks) was the first guy everyone would go to," Ruud said, "and he always knew the answer."
Now it's time for others to fulfill that role.
"There's got to come a time when some of the young guys on this team step up and earn that respect," Hovan said.
Now would seem like the perfect time.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]