TAMPA — In coming out of retirement to coach the Bucs, Bruce Arians surrounded himself with a large group of trusted assistants, several of whom shared the sideline with him during his time as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
But his Cardinals connections extend deep onto the field, where several veterans who played under Arians are not only fighting for roster spots, but showing other players the Arians way.
The Bucs’ training camp roster includes several players who played under Arians: inside linebackers Deone Bucannon and Kevin Minter, running back Andre Ellington, offensive lineman Earl Watford and quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
The five players combined for 130 starts under Arians during his five-year stretch as Cardinals’ head coach from 2013 to ’17.
“It helps them, they know what to expect," Arians said. "They can answer questions for the other guys on what to expect. They’re here because I know they’re good football players, and they’re tone setters.”
And now, as the Bucs open their preseason slate on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Friday at Heinz Field, some have even more significant roles as leaders and contributors.
"He drafted us and he believed in us," Minter said. "He knows we can still get it done. I know he wanted more veteran presence and that's just how B.A. is. He knows at one point we helped bring him to the NFC championship and he never forgets that."
With starting inside linebacker Lavonte David shelved recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery for a meniscus tear in his left knee, Bucannon -- a Cardinals' former first-round pick in 2014 who played four years under Arians -- has filled in David's spot. Bucannon and Minter will play important roles in helping to guide rookie first-rounder Devin White through his first NFL preseason.
“Damn near every year (in Arizona), we were a top-five defense,”said Minter of a defensive unit that was top-six in yards allowed in four of Arians’ five years. “Me, Buc, we were running it, same thing with Dre, we won games with Dre. It’s what it’s all about. He brought in some guys he trusts to help this team along. He obviously drafted some great guys. He’s trying to build something here.”
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Minter has mentored White for years. Both played linebacker at LSU, and White has been getting advice from Minter since he was a freshman in Baton Rouge.
“He was hitting me up since his freshman year,” Minter said. “He was always messaging with me, trying to get little nuggets, ‘Kev, how do I get better at this, how do I get better at that?’ He was trying to beat my records in the (LSU) weight room. I was like, ‘Alright, relax.’ Just to see him now, he’s still that kid who wants to learn regardless of him being the No. 5 pick, $19 million in his pocket, he’s still like, ‘I don’t know nothing, help me out,’ that type of stuff. So you’re more than willing to help him.”
Ellington, who was out of the game last season, has taken a mentor role with second-year running back Ronald Jones. Like Minter, Ellington is a member of Arians’ first Arizona draft class in 2013. He’s trying to win a roster spot as a versatile pass-catching running back, but doesn’t shy away from helping Jones. When he was a younger player in Arizona, he learned from veterans like Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson, and he hopes he can do the same for Jones.
"Having those guys around kind of taught me the ropes and I just want to give back as much as I can," Elllington said. "Right now, I'm kind of that guy who when I'm called on, just go out and make a play. Coach knows me really well, but my job now is to really try to be a leader for these younger guys and give them any knowledge that I have, or that I've gained throughout my career and just the best way I can try to help us win."
Ellington said this Bucs team is different compared to the one Arians inherited in Arizona — he took over a five-win team, won 10 games his first year, went to the postseason his second and came within a game of the Super Bowl in his third — because it’s much younger, but despite that, it can still be a winner.
“As opposed to the team we started with in Arizona, we have a lot more younger guys on the roster, but we have guys who are real attentive,” he said. “They’re locked in, they’re hungry, they want to win. And with that mentality, I feel like where we are as a team right now is in a pretty good spot. We really have something to build on here.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard