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Wilkerson's play has Tampa Bay Buccaneers finding a bigger role for him

Jimmy Wilkerson, left, pressuring the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, has played in all 10 games, on defense and special teams.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Jimmy Wilkerson, left, pressuring the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, has played in all 10 games, on defense and special teams.

TAMPA — Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, attempting to inspire his players the night before Sunday's game against the Vikings, showed a highlight tape filled exclusively with all-out-hustle plays.

Some involved a defender not giving up on running down a streaking ballcarrier. Others showed the potential payoff for playing until the whistle and never assuming a play is dead.

It's now clear that at least one guy in that room was paying close attention.

Sunday, Jimmy Wilkerson watched as Vikings running back Chester Taylor burst through the defensive front and caught a pass from Gus Frerotte with his mind focused on scoring the winning touchdown with just more than a minute left.

Wilkerson had other ideas. He ran Taylor down from behind and stripped him of the ball. When the play was over, cornerback Ronde Barber had recovered the ball, holding it and victory in his hands.

"We had that film with (Derrick) Brooks and Barber and all the great hustle plays we've had here," Kiffin said. "I think we might be seeing Jimmy Wilkerson on there sometime. That was a great hustle play. That's what it's all about."

After a sack, a forced fumble and five tackles against Minnesota, Wilkerson, 27, is beginning to show what he might do in an expanded role, one that Wilkerson, a career special-teamer until this season, believes has been a long time coming.

"My playing time is not even close," Wilkerson said when asked to compare his experience this year with that of his first five seasons, all with the Chiefs.

They were anonymous years, with Wilkerson starting five games and never gaining a place in the regular rotation. His two starts last season came at defensive end only because Pro Bowl player Jared Allen was suspended.

"Sometimes I'd play three snaps, five snaps, maybe 10 snaps if I was lucky," he said. "I played more on special teams than I did on defense. It had been like that for basically five years. Now, I'm averaging about 20 snaps a game on defense, and I'm on just about every special team.

"I'm having fun, man. In Kansas City I was just basically mad all the time. I'd take it out on people on special teams. I had a lot of frustrations and was mad at the coaches, wondering why I wasn't playing."

He took those concerns to defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Told by Cunningham the front office would have to address his issue, Wilkerson went there for answers. Then, like a caller trapped in an automated phone system, he was bounced around again.

"I went to management and asked them the same question," he said. "I was told that the coaches wanted to play the young guys that they drafted. That didn't make any sense to me. Here you had me, a guy with years of experience in the system against guys who were just out of college and just learning the system. They're getting playing time before me?"

How, then, did the Bucs come to recognize the former Oklahoma Sooner's suitability for their defense when he so rarely was on the field?

Tried and true scouting methods that have uncovered defensive gems such as Jovan Haye and Greg White are the reason Wilkerson's number was among the first the Bucs dialed on the first day of free agency this year.

"Part of the thing we saw in Jimmy in preseason film and the little bit of regular-season film we saw was the Buc defensive line characteristics that we always try to find," said Mark Dominik, in his seventh season as director of pro personnel.

"It's that high-energy pursuit and toughness. He showed those. And you also saw a guy who looked like he had some instincts and could locate the ball and attack and pursue from the backside. If there was a play it didn't look like he could make, he'd still try to run it down."

Those are skills Wilkerson, 6 feet 2, 290 pounds, has shown of late as he forces coaches to find a place for him in the rotation. He is frequently used as a nickel rusher, playing on the interior defensive line in passing situations. At other times, he switches to left defensive end, where he helped create a consistent pass rush against Minnesota that yielded five sacks.

Wilkerson's role is the biggest of his career. The only question is whether it continues to grow.

"We thought he was a good player," Kiffin said. "But really, he's exceeded our expectations."

Wilkerson's play has Tampa Bay Buccaneers finding a bigger role for him 11/20/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 23, 2008 7:46am]
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