TAMPA — On his 22nd birthday, Geno Hayes was taped to the goal post in the south end zone of a practice field at One Buc Place by teammates who dumped a bucket of ice water over his head.
The hazing took place in training camp and was a chilling reminder that the Bucs' starting weakside linebacker was the second-youngest player on the team.
"I made that announcement one day in our team meeting. I let everybody know our Will (weakside) linebacker is supposed to be a senior at Florida State," coach Raheem Morris said.
Last week at Seattle, Hayes performed like a player well beyond his years. Battling a hamstring injury, he was all over the field in the Bucs' 24-7 win. Hayes recorded a sack and an interception, recovered a fumble and had four tackles for a loss, a rare accomplishment by filling nearly every big-play category on the stat sheet.
"I really can't explain being in the zone," Hayes said. "I think it's just me hustling. The ball pops up in the air and I'm around the ball. Just whenever you hustle, plays happen like that."
Four months after his ice bath, Hayes is just warming up. That's why the Bucs are so excited about the player who had the unenviable job of replacing Derrick Brooks.
"You look at him, and he's kind of got a nonchalant little attitude," Morris said. "He's got that fun-loving, kid demeanor about him where you don't think he's paying attention but he really is. Then to watch him go out there and see what he was able to do in that game, it was impressive. He was all over the field with tackles, he was all over the field with production, and he was having fun doing it. That's kind of who Geno is. That's what he is and what he can become."
A year ago, Hayes played in nine games before a knee injury ended his rookie season. He finished with 15 tackles, including seven on special teams, and returned a blocked punt for a touchdown.
But Hayes says the transition to the NFL was a big one.
"I think it has," he said of adjusting, "because you come in from college and you still have a young mind-set about things, and you get here, and there's a lot of stuff going on.
"You've got to be able to catch on and figure out what's going on as far as financials and the business side of it. … There's a learning curve to it, and I think I'm still doing pretty well with it."
Hayes' production has increased since Morris took over the defense from Jim Bates for the past four games, returning the Bucs to the one-gap system many of the players were drafted to play.
"No discredit to Jim Bates and the scheme he had here, but a lot of players here are comfortable in this scheme and something we're able to do," Hayes said. "It's changed everything because now you can see everything. It's about speed and being able to play faster."
But Hayes' youth and inexperience remain an issue. He was late arriving at Raymond James Stadium to the season opener against Dallas and did not start.
"He's kind of the cool kid in school who doesn't want you to know he's smart," Morris said. "So he sits in the back and kind of acts like he's not taking notes, but he is. Now he knows what you're saying, but he can't quite verbalize it, and he's got Aqib Talib and a couple guys yelling at him, 'Speak the language, Geno.' "
In pro football, it's not only important to understand what is happening on the field during the game but to be able to come to the sideline and communicate it. Hayes has to get better at that, too.
"Geno is a smart guy. But it's being able to say what pattern concept something was," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "Like Seattle's No. 1 pattern concept out of normal personnel was X-Y Hook. That's what we call it. (Raheem) was like, 'Geno, what was the route?' And he knew it but said the wrong thing. That's big (because) if you do miss a play, you know that's my play and why you missed it instead of having the coaches storming around trying to figure out a new defense.
"The more you play, the more you see the same stuff. You can study as much as you want, but until you play, that's when you learn from your mistakes."
Linebackers coach Joe Barry is waiting for Hayes to become more consistent.
"Let's see what he's going to do this week," Barry said. "Because you can't have those peaks and valleys. You can't have a great week, then a bad week and then an okay week and another great week. You've got to get to that level and play there every week. Forget being a great player; that's what makes the good players good. He's getting there."
Say this for Hayes: He isn't afraid of the spotlight. Not everyone is comfortable replacing a future Hall of Fame linebacker such as Brooks. Hayes heard plenty of comparisons while playing at Florida State, and he doesn't shrink from the expectations.
"It's tough because you know you've got some big shoes to fill," Hayes said. "There are a lot of eyes on you because that's a big spot. I'm not scared to walk into that spot because I understand that's just something that goes on in this business. One day, the best player is there, and the next day he's gone. You've got to deal with it. You've got to be a man and step into that spot and take whatever comes with it."