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Playing through pain, LB Barrett Ruud has become a leader on defense.

The future face of the Bucs defense wears a wispy, '70s horseshoe mustache that lets you know tomorrow's star really is so yesterday. His jaw is as square as a kernel of Nebraska corn. He plays with more injuries than an ER episode.

In fact, in training camp last season, linebacker Barrett Ruud tore the meniscus in his left knee. Most players would opt to clean out torn cartilage, miss maybe a month and be back good as new.

Not Ruud. "Wasn't an option," he said. "You never want to come off the field if you don't have to."

So he played with the sensation of a hundred knives slicing into every step. He had the knee drained. From Mondays to Saturdays, he hobbled. Then on Sundays, he went out and led the team in tackles with 169 in his first full season as a starter.

Last week, Ruud, 25, missed practice with a sprained right knee and still tied Derrick Brooks for the club lead with eight tackles against Carolina. With that effort, Tampa Bay became the only defense that has not allowed a rushing touchdown or 100-yard rusher.

A dedicated defender

Ruud is the only Bucs linebacker who never leaves the field. Slowly, he is stepping out of the shadows of Brooks and Pro Bowl linebacker Cato June.

According to Brooks, it is Ruud's huddle. Before long, he says, it will be his defense, too.

"How I've helped him in terms of being a leader is I give him room. I see something on the field, I tell him or I check it or do something, but I do it to him to give him the voice," Brooks said. "Everyone knows the foundation of it, but that's unimportant to me. What is important is that he has the confidence to know he has a voice to speak up. And I'm humble enough and expected to listen to him, and he knows I will.

"Then certain times, I will step in front of him. He knows that and respects that. For 90 percent of the time we're out there, I give him the voice."

A second-round pick out of Nebraska in 2005, Ruud found himself sitting for two years behind Shelton Quarles, who, along with Brooks, had an immediate impact on his development.

Ruud would meet them at 6 a.m., sit in a dark room and watch tape of the next opponent before lifting weights and heading to their position meeting. He learned how to take detailed notes, get rest, eat right, practice hard, sit in the ice tub and repeat the routine. Eventually, he tweaked his preparation.

It's a drill not unlike what Brooks experienced when he took over from Pro Bowl linebacker Hardy Nickerson. The difference is, at 35, Brooks is still the boss after 10 Pro Bowls and 14 seasons.

"He's still growing," Brooks said of Ruud. "He's had early success. Now he's proven some toughness physically. He went through an injury here, an injury there.

"He's able to show different facets of middle linebacker yet humble enough to wait on his place, to wait on his turn, and I was in that position myself with Hardy."

Ruud gets it - the defense's record, responsibility and reward for upholding it. Why? It's not unlike the tradition he inherited at Nebraska, growing up in Lincoln, Neb., the son, grandson and nephew of former Huskers football players on both sides of the family. His father, Tom, played for Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin at Nebraska.

"You can always look and say this is the standard, it's been set," Ruud said. "Nobody wants to let that down. It's another factor as to why we've been successful for a long time. Guys want to live up to expectations."

By nature, Ruud says he is a "glass half empty" person when evaluating his performance. His edge is his drive to become better, which is why he spent the offseason improving his flexibility and becoming an even better athlete.

Ruud's athleticism was on display Sept. 21 at Chicago when he locked up in man coverage with Bears running back Matt Forte, shadowing him for 40 yards before making a juggling interception in the end zone.

"It was one of those things, I'm not going to lie, I probably wasn't going up with the intention of making the pick there. I was just going up to break it up," Ruud said. "Then you break it up, it gets a good bounce, and you catch it. I don't know if I'll make another play like that for a while."

For now, he leads the club in tackles with 56 and has a sack and two interceptions.

Away from the game

Off the field, Ruud insists he is as square as SpongeBob. He collects cowboy boots, loves the Grateful Dead and maintains a long-distance romance with a girlfriend in Lincoln.

"How does he become a leader? It is unique," linebackers coach Gus Bradley said. "Last year, we had Derrick Brooks, Cato June and Jeremiah Trotter and there's no doubt that Barrett was looked up to and a leader.

"When you're good and you have respect from your teammates, you can wear cowboy boots. You can wear a cutoff shirt and all of a sudden it becomes cool."

Ruud's only real off-field hobby is golf, where he and Brooks engage in epic battles. Reluctantly, Brooks admits Ruud might have him by a stroke or two.

"I think golf has really built a trust between us because we do hang out when we're off the field ... ," Brooks said. "He gets a chance to see me away from football to see I'm the same type person that he can grow with and trust."

But will Brooks, the Godfather of the Bucs, eventually trust Ruud enough to allow him to become the face of the defense?

"I think so. We'll see where it goes," Brooks said. "That's why I say I don't want to put too much on him. But at the same time, I'm humble enough to pat him on the back and tell him when he's doing well, when he's got something going well and still keep a challenge out in front of him.

"It forces him to step up and know his place and his strengths. That's why I say it's important for me to give him that room and him be comfortable enough to grow."