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Tampa Bay Buccaneers to throw rookies into fire of NFL season opener

TAMPA — Alabama is the envy of college football today. But when Mark Barron arrived on campus in the fall of 2008, the Crimson Tide was coming off two seasons in which it went a combined 13-13.

Two national championships later, the Bucs' first-round pick has fond reflections.

"At Alabama," Barron said, "my class was really the one that started the turnaround."

Wouldn't it be interesting if the Bucs' current rookie class had a similar impact?

"I hope I can look back one day and say that," the strong safety said.

The Bucs rookies get their first exposure to regular-season NFL football Sunday against the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium. Three will start, and three others are expected to see action.

Barron has been a starter from the day he walked through the doors, drafted seventh overall. The Bucs traded up to land Boise State running back Doug Martin at No. 31. He dazzled during the preseason and also will start Sunday.

Then, there's second-round pick Lavonte David, a linebacker out of Nebraska whom the Bucs targeted for his diverse skill set and also traded up in order to draft.

He'll start on the weakside, having already created high expectations.

The remaining draft picks on the roster — fifth-round linebacker Najee Goode from West Virginia, sixth-round safety Keith Tandy from West Virginia and seventh-round running back Michael Smith from Utah State — have a chance to make contributions on special teams or as backups.

"I feel like we have some players who can come in and have immediate impact," Barron said. "I feel like we can all really help this team."

The Bucs aren't bringing these rookies along slowly, either.

And that begs the question: How do they know the rookies are ready?

Coach Greg Schiano said the team targeted players from major programs for that reason.

"If you look at the common denominators, these are guys who played in big venues and really had performed at a high level at the highest level of college football," he said. "I think that certainly gives you an advantage.

"Mark Barron, coming from Alabama where there's … 100,000 people every week, I'm not sure this is going to be too big for him."

Many rookies showed promise during the preseason, even in limited playing time:

• Martin led the team in rushing.

• Barron returned an interception for a touchdown and was a reliable tackler.

• David had two tackles for losses and an interception.

• Smith grabbed hold of the kickoff-return duties, averaging 31.7 yards.

• Tandy led the club in tackles (22).

"I think we kept showing up in practice, then we kept showing up in preseason games," Smith said. "We kept showing up and showing up, and after a while, it's not a coincidence. But we have to come out and earn it and keep playing hard to show them we belong in the NFL."

The Bucs hope this rookie class can be a part of a turnaround for a team that was 4-12 last year, including 10 consecutive losses to end the season.

"We have a whole new coaching staff, and things are kind of starting over," David said. "I think we have a great chance to be something special."

Said Smith: "I want to look back one day and smile and say, 'Oh yeah, that was us. We came in and did our thing.' "

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@tampabay.com. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs and follow him on Twitter at @HolderStephen.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers to throw rookies into fire of NFL season opener 09/07/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 7, 2012 9:44pm]
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