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The Bucs give him his best chance to win an NFL starting spot.

Jovan Haye moved to his right, trying to hold his gap while pursuing the ballcarrier when he went down like a duck in a shooting gallery, the victim of an unexpected cut block.

"Hey, what was that?" Haye screamed angrily at the guilty offensive lineman.

After Sunday morning's practice, Haye dismissed the play as just part of football. But his point was made.

If he is going to be the starting under tackle in the Bucs' defense - a position defined by Miami sound machine Warren Sapp - he had better start acting like it.

Right now, however, holding his tongue isn't as important for Haye as keeping a firm grip on a starting job. Because this is a position Haye has rarely been in.

"I've been in the back of the line my whole career. Trust me," said Haye, 25, entering his third season. "My whole career. You see guys in front of you and you're like, 'Man, I wish I could be there.' "

Whether it was at Carolina as a sixth-round pick from Vanderbilt, or bouncing around from Cleveland to Tampa Bay, the 6-foot-2, 285-pound Haye was always the last man up. And it's like the Iditarod: if you're not the lead dog, the view never changes.

In fact, Haye had never even played defensive tackle until he was signed by the Bucs Oct. 25, shortly after they traded Anthony McFarland to Indianapolis.

Haye responded with 25 tackles in nine games with the Bucs. But after a solid offseason, Haye has come out of nowhere to earn first-team reps and is in a logjam at under tackle with Ellis Wyms, rookie Greg Peterson, Darrell Campbell and Kevin Carter.

The under tackle position - or the three technique, as it's referred to in Tampa Bay's one-gap defensive scheme - has always been the centerpiece of the defense.

It also has been a little like trying to play center for the Los Angeles Lakers in terms of expectations.

The bar was set so high by Sapp - who recorded 77 sacks in nine seasons with the Bucs - not even a first-round pick like McFarland could clear it.

''We're looking for a three technique that walks right into the front of the line and takes whatever he wants," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "That's the kind of story I'm interested in doing. If we're going to run this defense, the three technique has to be a guy who wins (at the line of scrimmage). It's one of the reasons you're in the defense."

Carter, who is getting more reps lately at left defensive end, has become a fan of Haye's.

"He's scrappy. I like his spirit," Carter said. "He's strong, he's tough and he's young. He's got great spirit and the only thing he may lack is a little bit of technique here and there. I'm really excited for him to have an opportunity to get in there and play because he's talented and he's a guy who could possibly really get good at that position over time. So, he's definitely a guy that can do it for us."

Haye was a guard in high school in Fort Lauderdale, switching to defense fulltime at Vanderbilt. Right now, his focus has to be learning his responsibilities. Eventually, he'll have to push the pocket and help generate a Bucs pass rush that produced just 25 sacks last season.

"What you like about him is his motor," defensive line coach Larry Coyer said. "We saw that last year. He just needs to improve on some technique and not try to over-analyze things, just trust the defense."

From where Haye is standing at the front of the line, all he can see is opportunity.

"Every day, it's a stride to try to move up in the line," Haye said. "Sometimes you go back and then you go forward. I'm making sure I take two steps forward and one step back. Eventually, I'll get there."