TAMPA — Ryan Sims will have a sizeable cheering section Monday night when the Bucs visit the Carolina Panthers in a battle for the NFC South Division lead.
In the stands will be his parents and plenty of other family members and friends from his hometown, Spartanburg, S.C., about 75 miles southwest of Charlotte, N.C. Countless others will remember Sims as a three-year standout defensive tackle for North Carolina, where he was a teammate and roommate of Panthers two-time All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers.
His parents will be sitting with Peppers' mother, who has been a friend since their sons played starring roles on the Tar Heels' defense.
"I can't think of a better homecoming," said Sims, a first-team All-ACC selection and second-team All-American as a senior in 2001. "A big game. Starting. Monday Night Football. It's like a book I wrote myself."
The latest chapter features Sims, 28, in an expanded role in his second Bucs season. He stepped in Sunday against the Saints when tackle Jovan Haye hurt his knee and earned kudos this week from coach Jon Gruden as an unsung, versatile lineman, whether he's in for 12 plays or possibly 60 against Carolina.
"He's playing very well for us," Gruden said. "He's in shape, he's a big guy with position flexibility, and he's a powerful guy."
Sims, 6 feet 4 and 315 pounds, proved his worth in a limited role last year, after the Bucs acquired him in an offseason trade with Kansas City. Though he appeared in only nine games, he led the team with four tackles for losses and added depth to the interior line against the run and as a pass rusher.
Sims was a first-round pick of the Chiefs in 2002, the sixth player selected overall.
His rookie season was marred by a dislocated elbow, limiting him to six appearances and two starts. Sims followed with his best season, registering 83 tackles and three sacks. But his playing time and contributions began to wane, eventually leaving him as a reserve on Kansas City's struggling defense.
"I had some good times and some bad times," he said. "If anything, I learned how to work hard and try to come back and correct things. And I learned perseverance and to keep working, no matter what."
Defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson, who played with Sims in Kansas City, said the system wasn't a good fit for his Bucs teammate. "If you're in the right system, you're going to do well, and seeing him here, I can tell he's having a lot of fun," Wilkerson said. "In Kansas City, he wasn't having that much fun."
Sims has 15 tackles, with three for losses, and line coach Todd Wash is impressed.
"Last year he didn't play as much and really wasn't in a set rotation," Wash said. "This year we're using him to his strengths on first and second down. As the year's gone on, he's gotten even better at other things. It's unfortunate that Jovan got hurt, but we feel we're not going to miss a beat with Ryan."