TAMPA — Jermaine Phillips looked as out of place as the No. 23 on his back, jersey numerals not normally permitted to be assigned to linebackers in the NFL.
He's confident with the position switch from safety the league will grandfather him in because the one thing Phillips has vowed not to change is his uniform number.
The Bucs hope that's not all that makes Phillips stand out at the position manned by Derrick Brooks the past 14 seasons.
"When you get down to it, it's all football," Phillips, 30, said. "But I'm still just learning the keys, just like everybody else. I'm still learning the new defense and everything. I said I felt a little awkward at the linebacker position, but they say I look good, so that's comforting to know. But I didn't feel bad. I got comfortable as the days got on, but I know, and everybody else knows, I've got a long way to go. It was a good first few days just to get my feet wet and see what it was going to be like with my different reads and things of that nature."
Watching minicamp last week, it was apparent why they need Phillips on the field. The defense simply doesn't have enough playmakers. Outside of LB Barrett Ruud, CBs Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber and maybe S Tanard Jackson, who is going to make impact plays? DE Gaines Adams still is a project. Chris Hovan no longer is a perfect fit under Jim Bates, who prefers 320-pound defensive tackles. DB Sabby Piscitelli is green but growing.
From his safety position, Phillips set the tone with an intimidating style the Bucs hope won't disappear at linebacker. No question his coverage skills will be an asset. It will, however, be months before anyone knows how the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Phillips will react to having 330-pound guards torpedo him play after play.
"He stood out every day he was here," coach Raheem Morris said. "He's overly athletic, but it's more what he did in the running game — how he saw it and how he viewed it. Of course, he made some mistakes. … Jermaine's very critical of himself, and that's the key thing. As long as he remains critical of himself, then he's got no choice but to get better. I won't have to be his biggest critic. I'm just patting him on the back and giving him a bunch of praise because he wants to be the best right now."
Phillips finished last season with 86 tackles and three interceptions despite missing five games. A series of broken forearms over the years stole his value as a free agent. He will be a free agent again after the 2009 season.
"As long as I can make plays, I'm going to have fun," he said. "That's what it boils down to for me. As long as I can get out there and make plays and be effective and help the team win, then it'll be a fun time."
HELP ON THE WAY: Bills free agent Angelo Crowell wasn't able to participate in the three-day minicamp, but he was at the facility every day and even took part in stretching sessions.
He is recovering from a knee injury that forced him to miss all of 2008. When he returns for optional activities in May, he will begin competing with Quincy Black at strongside linebacker.
When healthy, the 6-1, 246-pound Crowell is an impact player. In '07, he had 126 tackles with two sacks and an interception.
"It's a different dynamic being a new guy because you create a lot of bonds with your teammates being on the field. You get along off the field, but when you're on the field and you're grinding together, that's where the closeness and relationships are built," Crowell said. "… I've got a lot of doubters that think I can't come back and be the player I was. To come back and be the player I was would be a disappointment to me. I've got to be better than that, so I'm anxious to get out on the field and show what I can do."