TAMPA — As a Bucs rookie in 2008, LB Geno Hayes played almost exclusively on special teams. A year later, he became the starter on the weakside and was charged with replacing franchise icon Derrick Brooks.
And to Hayes' credit, he turned a pressure-packed situation into an impressive season, becoming one of the few bright spots on a defense that ranked 27th among 32 clubs. His 136 tackles trailed only LB Barrett Ruud's 205.
While Hayes made an enormous leap from one season to the next, for the Bucs defense to see significant improvement this season, Hayes and many of his young teammates need to make even bigger gains in 2010.
For all of the talk about the Bucs' 11 selections in the upcoming draft, the development of players such as Hayes, QB Josh Freeman, LG Jeremy Zuttah, LB Quincy Black and DT Roy Miller will have a greater effect on the outcome of next season than this year's rookie class.
Yes, the player the Bucs pick at No. 3 overall better bring an instant impact. But that single player can't affect the team's fortunes as much as a collective group of maturing young players. As much pressure as there was on these guys as first-time starters or contributors in 2009, the demands that will be placed on them this season to elevate their games will be greater.
The good news is they're embracing this formidable challenge.
"Now we have a better understanding of what's going on," Hayes said. "It's going to be more exciting because we have a better outlook on the game itself and how to be better and how to be a professional. I'm loving it. I can't wait for it.
"A lot of positives came out of last year. A lot of young guys got a lot of playing time and experience. The next year, you have to get better off of what you built."
Freeman should be considerably better. Given the unenviable circumstances he faced in his rookie season, it's hard to believe he had so many impressive moments. Despite a change of coordinators, a lack of practice reps and being the third quarterback to start, Freeman showed upside.
Now all he has to do is duplicate the positives consistently — all while everyone associated with the club tells him its future lies in his hands.
Freeman, a guy who never sweats, predictably said that's cool with him.
"Last year at this time, obviously, the draft hadn't occurred. But after I got drafted, it was a whirlwind and the focus wasn't on me," he said. "But this year, it's my show. It's my team, and I want to win."
The Bucs hope this attitude becomes infectious. They need everything they can get from this group.
Take Miller, for example. Though the Bucs hope to draft the dominant defensive tackle they've lacked for so long, Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy can play only one of the two tackle spots. Can Miller take advantage of the opportunity and raise his game? If he does, his potential rookie linemate will be all the more effective.
The Bucs' oft-repeated plan of building through the draft and with a youthful roster obviously means they're going to be relying on a lot of inexperienced players. Hayes turns 23 two weeks before the regular season. Freeman turned 22 in January. Miller and Zuttah are 23.
Clearly, they're asking quite a bit of guys who are barely old enough to bar hop. But the fact that those youngsters played such big roles last season means they aren't starting from scratch.
"I've been here the whole offseason critiquing everything about myself and seeing what I can build off of," Hayes said. "I'm trying to take my wrongs and make them rights and take my rights and make them better."
ONE BUC PARADE: At least 20 prospects have passed through One Buc Place already, two-thirds of the team's predraft allotment of 30.
There haven't been any real shockers, but the Bucs did host Oklahoma State OT Russell Okung and Idaho G Mike Iupati, two of the top linemen available. Oregon RB LeGarrette Blount, suspended for most of last season for a postgame punch, has stopped by.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]