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Tampa Bay Buccaneers, unlike Tennessee Titans, did not sign mentor for rookie linebacker

At 22 years old, they might not let you change lug nuts during the Daytona 500 on your first day with the pit crew. You might not get to anchor SportsCenter on Super Bowl Sunday.

But start every game at middle linebacker for the Bucs?

Now we're talking.

At least that was the discussion coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik had about rookie Mason Foster in April.

Do they attempt to re-sign steady Barrett Ruud to a one-year contract and let him mentor the third-round pick from Washington? Or throw Foster to the Lions (and Vikings and Bears)?

"A lot of people are going to say, 'Man, you're only 22 years old. You're a rookie. There's no way you're going to be able to make those checks and lead the defense,' " Foster said. "But at the same time, nothing is impossible. I have a lot of confidence in myself, and I love a challenge."

Same discussion, different team.

The Titans, whom the Bucs face today, used a fourth-round pick on Miami middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, a former Clearwater Central Catholic star.

But instead of baptizing McCarthy by fire, the Titans signed Ruud to a one-year, $4 million contract.

"We needed some leadership on defense, and Barrett's been a really good fit for us," Titans coach Mike Munchak said of Ruud, who spent six seasons with the Bucs.

"He's a smart player who runs well and can stay on the field every play. He's a guy that has come in and really quarterbacked the defense well. We've had four rookies start at the same time on defense, and Ruud's done a great job of keeping us together."

Ruud, 28, fought through a shoulder injury in the preseason to start the first eight games for the Titans this season, recording 63 tackles, three passes defensed, one quarterback hurry and an interception that helped finish off the Colts on Oct. 30. A groin strain prevented him from playing two weeks ago against Carolina. He aggravated the injury last week against Atlanta and will sit out today's game.

In his first start for Ruud, against Carolina, McCarthy recorded 12 tackles, including two for losses, and a quarterback pressure. After replacing Ruud against Atlanta, McCarthy forced a fumble and led the Titans with 10 tackles.

McCarthy, 23, credits Ruud for his development, particularly film study.

"Barrett's been playing great," McCarthy told "He's great to learn from. I think that's the biggest thing as far as being a younger guy. He's a guy that's been around the game. He knows how to study. He knows how to prepare."

The Titans are tied for seventh in scoring defense at 19.5 points per game. The Bucs are 29th at 26.8.

"I feel like I have a welcome-to-the-NFL moment every week," Foster said. "I'm facing so many different backs every week and so many different schemes. Against the Texans, you're going to face zone schemes where offensive linemen are climbing up. You go against the Saints, and you're playing against a quarterback like Drew Brees and you're going man-to-man against (running back) Darren Sproles, a super fast guy.

"You learn from your mistakes. Go in there, mess it up and you'll be better able to handle it next time."

Foster has played better than Tampa Bay expected. He leads the team in tackles with 73 and has two sacks and a forced fumble despite trying to play two games with sprained ankles. In fact, the Bucs planned on using him only in their base defense. But an injury to Quincy Black early forced him into duty on passing downs, and he hasn't come off the field except for injury.

"Pretty much, Mason's playing quarterback for the defense," Morris said. "He's making every single call. He's making every single check. And that's tough to do.

"It's hard for me to look at him sometimes and get mad at him when he does make a small mistake in games. You've got to go and learn through fire."

Ruud, who led the Bucs in tackles for four straight seasons, never got enough credit for his football IQ, Morris said.

"He was far beyond," Morris said. "You're talking about having the ability to call one defense and have it turn into three different things by the time he was done. He didn't get enough credit for that. You have to talk about his ability to run a defense, to be that leader."

Two teams, two approaches.

But you get the feeling both are happy with the results.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers, unlike Tennessee Titans, did not sign mentor for rookie linebacker 11/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 26, 2011 6:57pm]
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