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Gruden shuffles defense

The Bucs solved the riddle in the middle of their defense at linebacker.

But Nate Webster wasn't the answer.

Tampa Bay will move Shelton Quarles from strongside linebacker to middle linebacker and Al Singleton will start in Quarles' spot, coach Jon Gruden said at the NFL owners meetings Wednesday.

Quarles will replace starter Jamie Duncan, who signed with the Rams as a free agent. His shift to middle linebacker is an indication the Bucs are unwilling to turn the position over to Webster, a third-year pro from Miami who had offseason surgery on both shoulders and won't participate in minicamp April 5.

"I think Quarles has the demeanor to be a very good (middle) linebacker," Gruden said. "He's got great communication skills, he's got a heck of a feel for our defense, he has an instinctive ability we think is going to help him be a very good middle linebacker. Really, he's a natural in there. We're anxious to put him in there, let him be the leader of our defense and make some calls. "We want a lot out of the middle linebacker position in this defense. A lot. And we're going to get a lot this year. We think Shelton and the competition we can generate there with Nate is going to be legitimate, and it's going to be exciting. It's going to make them both better."

Last season the Bucs were unhappy with Duncan's play and watched their defense slip to 12th in the NFL (106.4 per game) against the run and sixth overall.

Quarles, 29, has started at strongside linebacker since winning the job in training camp in '99. He said he will attempt to add 10 pounds of muscle to his 225-pound frame.

"I don't think that I have to be 230 pounds, but (if) I put on a little more muscle it will give me strength to take on those blockers when they're coming at you," Quarles said. "Usually when you're playing strongside linebacker the only blocker you're taking on is the fullback. Even though I'm outweighed by 30 or 40 pounds, I can usually choose an angle and try to do what I can do to make a play. But when playing middle you have to take on linemen. So that's going to be a little bit different."

It's not the first time the Bucs have considered using the versatile Quarles at another position. A year ago, during Derrick Brooks' training camp holdout, Quarles was moved to weakside linebacker.

The Bucs still have hopes for Webster, but at 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds he is undersized at middle linebacker. That, combined with his rehabilitation of his shoulders, led linebackers coach Joe Barry and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to shuffle things up.

"I like Nate, too," Gruden said. "Nate Webster is a contact guy. He's all over the place. How could you not like that guy? Jimminy Christmas, I saw that guy in the hallway the other day and he all but knocked me over. The guy gets in a collision just getting a coke.

"Nate and Shelton, those guys are two real good prospects at those positions. Who are we kidding? Those guys have middle linebacker attributes. I think Al Singleton quietly has made a lot of plays in Tampa and is a guy we want to get on the field. I'm not going to guarantee who's starting in March. I'm going to base that on performance and how these guys compete and execute."

Singleton spent his first five seasons as a backup for the Bucs, mostly on special teams. But he saw plenty of action spelling Quarles and said starting would not be a big adjustment.

"Throughout all the years I've been switching in and out," Singleton said. "Since 1998 our motto has been if you're out there on the field, you're a starter, so play like one. So it's no excuse that you haven't been in there."

While Duncan was used primarily on rushing downs, Quarles will be able to remain on the field in passing situations, a luxury the Bucs have not had at middle linebacker since Hardy Nickerson.

"We want a lot of plays, we want a lot of juice out of that guy," Gruden said. "We want the communication to be crystal clear, we want energy and we want playmaking there. It's a position we take great pride in here in this style of defense. Not that Jamie Duncan didn't do that, but we feel like we've got some guys who can play in there, and we need to sign some other players, obviously."