TAMPA — Vernon Hargreaves has a man-to-man crush on Bruce Arians.
That’s the pass coverage scheme the new Bucs coach prefers to deploy, and it’s one that helped the former Florida star become the 12th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
But injuries and his ineffectiveness in Tampa Bay’s zone defense have contributed to Hargreaves’ nightmarish pro career. Last year, despite forcing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown by safety Justin Evans in a 48-40 win at New Orleans in Week 1, Hargreaves suffered a season-ending left shoulder injury.
Completely recovered from his Sept. 21 surgery for a torn labrum, Hargreaves was excited to hear Arians say last week that he will enter training camp as the starting outside cornerback opposite Carlton Davis.
“It’s everything that I do,’’ Hargreaves said. “It’s everything that I do well. It’s kind of like taking me back to college. It’s the same scheme. Blitz the quarterback, man to man on the outside and let’s get after it.’’
What made Hargreaves feel so confident is what Arians said at the NFL annual meetings last week. He suggested he no longer wants Hargreaves to double up as the nickel cornerback, preferring him to lock down outside receivers instead.
Keep in mind, Arians has not spent one day on the practice field with Hargreaves, who has one career interception in 26 games.
“Vernon has all the talent in the world,” Arians said. “He works hard, smart. Why can’t he be successful? He just has to stay healthy.
“People say this guy was a bust. He was hurt all the time. It wasn’t his fault. He was a hell of a player.”
With cornerback Brent Grimes no longer with the team and second-year pro M.J. Stewart moving from cornerback to safety, that leaves Hargreaves and Ryan Smith as the Bucs’ most experienced defensive backs.
Hargreaves doesn’t make excuses for the slow start to his career. But when he arrived in Tampa Bay, he had to adapt to the zone scheme of defensive coordinator Mike Smith and the transition was tougher than he anticipated.
“It’s difficult. More difficult than I thought,’’ Hargreaves said. “Until you actually go out there and try to cover guys in a way you know you’re not all that used to. I’m not an off corner. I’m a press corner. I need to get up in your face. That’s just what it is. It was a little adjustment period for me obviously. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great. But it needed to be better. But it just didn’t really fit what I do best.’’
It’s important to note that Hargreaves is only 23. He has 10 career interceptions in three seasons with the Gators, so his ability to play the football in the air is what boosted him to the first round of the draft.
Hargreaves had a solid training camp and preseason before the shoulder injury last season. Two years ago, a hamstring injury limited him to only nine games played.
“Obviously, I was disappointed,’’ Hargreaves said. “You don’t want to lose a whole season. I just had to rehab and try to get better as fast as I could, which I did. Rehab went great, no setbacks. I’m healthy now and excited to play this year.”
This is not how the Hargreaves story was scripted. A former star at Wharton High School, he was the prodigal son coming home to begin his NFL career.
Hargreaves has never tried to underplay his struggles. In fact, he embraces them.
“I struggled and that’s life,’’ Hargreaves said. “I’m not running from it. It’s anything I’m scared of or didn’t want to happen or whatever. It is what it is but it actually helped me. It actually made me better.
“I’ve seen a lot. Done a lot. Been through a lot of things. And the guys in the locker room, they look me as a guy that’s kind of been through it now. As that vet, even though I haven’t played in two years, they still look at me like I’ve got those years under my belt. Just because they’ve seen what I’ve been through, they’ve seen the behind the scenes, they’ve seen what everybody is saying and those kinds of things. They know what I’m about.’’
This is a big season for Hargreaves, who is in the final year of his rookie contract. The Bucs have to decide next month whether to exercise the fifth-year club option for 2020 by tendering a contract of more than $9-million to Hargreaves that is guaranteed only against injury.
Certainly, Hargreaves liked the urgency Arians demonstrated when he addressed his team for the first time Monday, the official start of the off-season workout program.
“This isn’t a restart. This isn’t a rebuild,’’ Hargreaves said Arians informed the team. “This isn’t an, ‘Alright, let’s take a year and see what we’ve got.’ This is a win now. If you don’t want to win, then you can go. There are a lot of other teams out there.”
In fact, Hargreaves already has bought into everything Arians is preaching. How could he not? It’s one thing to play in Tampa, it’s another to feel at home in the defense.
"What coach Arians said the other day, I can’t stop smiling,’’ Hargreaves said. “I sent the little link to everybody. It’s just good to know the coaches here, they understand. They understand what’s going on, they understand us as players and where guys should be and I’m happy about that.’’
“He was speaking so highly on me, and it was like, why? He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what I do. But it’s extreme confidence for me. I want to play for him. When the head guy puts himself on the line for you, it kind of does something for you.’’
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud.