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Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud taking work one day at a time

The immediate past is unremarkable. It is frustrating and painful and too ugly to remember. It is hard to blame Barrett Ruud for not looking back.

On the other hand, his future is unpromised. It is hazy and vague and impossible to make out in the distance. It is hard to expect him to look forward.

What Ruud is left with is the present. He has the next play, and the next practice, and eventually, the next season.

For now, Ruud says, that is enough.

On the final day of his 26th year, Ruud stood in the microwave-like sun at One Buc Place on Wednesday, sweat dripping off him and splashing onto the grass. He looked a bit like a rock star after a concert, the wet strands of his long hair covering his neck, the water dribbling onto his red jersey.

It is only May, and it is only practice, and already the heat seems to be on Ruud.

The Bucs linebacker has started for three seasons, and still fans cannot seem to agree on him. He is among the team's most consistent performers, and yet he is among its most questioned. In 2009 he led his team in tackles for the third straight season, and still there are those who would dissect all 142 of them.

"I read the bloggers,'' Ruud said, grinning. "I read that I make all of my tackles 7 yards downfield. But a lot of times, a tackle 7 yards downfield is a great tackle, because you can keep a guy from going 60 yards. When I evaluate the great linebackers of the NFL, I see a lot of guys making tackles 7 yards down the field. They're making a great play when a guy looks like he's about to break it outside.''

For Ruud, last season was difficult. The Bucs were last in the NFL against the run, and too many times it seemed as if opponents were trying to pave a highway down the middle of the field.

"Last year was really tough,'' Ruud said. "When you start 0-10, it's difficult to look back and see how many 'what ifs' there could have been.''

It was 0-7, you tell him. Not 0-10. But who's counting?

"Was it only 0-7?'' he said. "It felt like 0-and-forever.''

This year things have a chance to be different. For one thing, the Bucs used their first picks of the draft on defensive tackles, and the first priority for both Gerald McCoy and Brian Price is to try to end up somewhere other than Ruud's lap. That isn't a big secret. The better the defensive tackle play is, the better a middle linebacker has a chance to be.

Put it this way: If drafting two wide receivers was good for quarterback Josh Freeman, then drafting two defensive tackles could be excellent for Ruud.

"It definitely helps,'' Ruud said. "We're in a one-gap system, and it isn't like it's their entire responsibility to take up every blocker. But they can really disrupt plays. It's hard to run certain plays when you don't know if a 3-technique is going to explode upfield and blow something up.''

If that happens often enough, who knows? The Bucs might even make Ruud a contract extension offer.

So far, there hasn't been one — Ruud can leave after this season — which leaves you to wonder if the team is uncertain about the labor situation in 2011 or if it is uncertain if Ruud is nasty enough in the hole.

"I don't know if the team has concerns,'' Ruud said. "They haven't told me that. What I do know is that I've evaluated myself pretty hard the last three years. I think I've played as well as the top linebackers in the league. When I stack myself up around the league, I compare pretty well.

"Last year? I was … good. I wasn't great, but I wasn't bad.''

Like most of the Bucs, Ruud separates last season into the first 10 games, when Jim Bates ran the defense, and the last six, when head coach Raheem Morris took it over.

"You know, Barrett and everyone else struggled early on,'' Morris said. "No secret about that. He played at a high level at the end of the season. Before that, we all had our struggles. We were all trying to fit into it. We can all be knocked. I wasn't as a good a head coach as I was the last six games. You can knock me for that.''

If the Bucs are going to be better this year, they need a good year from Ruud on the field. And perhaps in the locker room. Who else among the front seven is going to lead? Who is a better mentor than the player Morris calls "the General"?' Oh, the secondary has Ronde Barber, and the offensive line has Jeff Faine and Davin Joseph, but it's easy to wonder if the team has enough leadership.

"I think so,'' Ruud said. "We have enough guys who work. There isn't a Derrick Brooks who has been to 12 Pro Bowls and when he talks, everyone leans in to hear what he has to say. But we do have a lot of guys who do things the right way.

"As far as leadership, I welcome that. I went from being one of the younger guys to being one of the older ones in about two years.''

Last year's finish, and this year's draft, make Ruud think this year can be a better one.

"I honestly think we can have a big turnaround,'' he said. "I think we can go from three wins to competing for the playoffs, to coming down to the last couple of games where we have a chance.

"You can have a turnaround in the NFL. I remember the Falcons in 2007 were one of the worst teams I've played against. They had no hope to win any games after (coach Bobby) Petrino quit. The next year, Mike Smith came in with a rookie quarterback, and they went to the playoffs.''

Would that be enough for a new contract? Who knows? But if the Bucs don't take care of their veterans, they may create more holes than the draft can fill.

"You know, it is frustrating,'' Ruud said. "But it also isn't up to me. I can't get mad at anyone for not giving me a contract now. What I can do is play well. Play well, play productively, and people will notice. Whatever happens, you have to play well.

"I think it will work out here eventually. I really do. ''

Chat live with Times sports columnist Gary Shelton today from noon to 1 p.m. at sports.tampabay.com.

Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud taking work one day at a time 05/19/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 20, 2010 7:52am]
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