TAMPA — To coach Raheem Morris, the potential for weakside linebacker Geno Hayes is special.
"He can be a dominant player," Morris said.
Hayes, 24, has used athleticism, aggressiveness and awareness to lead the Bucs in tackles for loss each of the past two seasons.
But though the former Florida State standout is no stranger to "splash plays," from big hits to picks, coaches say they need to see consistency on every play.
"He has the speed, he has the hands, he has the awareness, he has the 'want-to,' " Morris said. "It's just about him putting it all together and doing all the things we grade each other (on), being fast, smart, consistent, the code. If he goes out and does those things consistently, he'll be what we think he is."
Linebackers coach Joe Baker sees Hayes making steps in that direction, taking great notes in meetings and asking detailed questions.
"It's showing up on the field,'' Baker said. "It's just sometimes, one of Hayes' biggest strengths can also be a weakness if relied on too much.
"Geno is a guy who has probably just made a lot of plays just because he has great instincts. He can't always tell you exactly what he saw or what he felt, he just smelled the ball, and goes and gets it. Sometimes that's great, and sometimes, you're not supposed to do that. I think he's understanding better when he can take those shots and when he's got to play his responsibility."
Part of it is maturity. Hayes was just 20 when he was drafted in the sixth round in 2008, and played nine games in a year he would have been a senior.
Hayes, who has started 29 of 32 games since, has had off-field issues; he showed up late the morning of a game Sept. 13, 2009 against the Cowboys (he was benched to start the game), and was arrested in December on charges of disorderly conduct and trespassing after a dust-up with security at the Blue Martini Lounge in Tampa (he wasn't prosecuted for disorderly conduct and pleaded no contest to trespassing).
Hayes promised an arrest would never happen again, and wants to be more responsible on the field, too, including an increased leadership role.
"I'm really trying to be that guy that puts a spark on the squad, keeping guys up and not really wearing my emotions on my sleeve like I used to," Hayes said. "That's one of the biggest things. I know a lot of guys look back at me, 'What's going on here?' What do I have to do here?' I'm just trying to be a better leader and knowing what's going on for the whole defense."
Hayes hopes to build off of a strong season in which he ranked second on the team with 104 tackles last season, plus an interception returned for a touchdown and four sacks. He's still young with high energy, as seen both on the field and on Twitter (@GenoHayes54), where he's one of the most active Bucs. But it's all about channeling his emotions the right way.
"I heard (Ravens star linebacker) Ray Lewis say when I was little, 'You've got to be as hot as fire and as cool as ice,' " Hayes said. "That's the kind of mentality I've got to take right now and learn how to control when I get hyper and know when to cool out before a play."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.