TAMPA — Rakeem Nunez-Roches is chatting everyone up in warmups and still doing it when he lines up against them in practice.
Nobody can shut him up. Trash talking is an art form that is as much a part of the NFL as shoulder pads. And Nacho, as he is affectionately called by coaches and teammates, knows how to get your goat. In fact, he got the GOAT.
Tom Brady and the Bucs were having a terrible practice Sunday when Nunez-Roches, who was the cause for much of the mayhem, popped off.
‘‘Oh yeah, I’m trash talking to Brady,” Nunez-Roches said. ’‘I told him (Sunday), ‘I see you struggling over there, No. 12.’ ‘He said, “I love it, Nacho!’ And I was kind of like starstruck. I was like, ‘Tom Brady is talking to me?’ Sometimes, you forget that that’s your teammate, because you compete so much.
“I’ve always looked up to Tom. He’s great, he comes to work prepared every day. He just comes on the field and — pure excellence. He doesn’t want anything but to dominate. And for somebody to give you a compliment and say, ‘Keep it up, Nacho.’ I was like, whoa. ... It was awesome, though. I’m getting after Tom like I’m going to get after everybody else this year.”
This difference this year is that Nunez-Roches can start trouble with his body as well as his mouth.
In addition to bringing so much energy to the defense, Nunez-Roches has added some bulk without losing any quickness.
During the season, he weighed as little as 292 pounds. But this year, he has been as heavy as 320 spread over his 6-foot-2 frame.
“How I got there? A lot, a lot of carb loading but doing it right,” Nunez-Roches said. “You can’t just put on a lot of weight and not have your body test how it can move and the range of motion and being explosive. Because then, you’re only putting on fat. ...So as I was putting on weight, I made sure I did certain activities that was going to challenge my body as if I was in football activities.”
Coaches and teammates have raved about Nunez-Roches’ improvement. And they credit him with bringing the energy to practice.
“Right now, in a week and a half, he’s been the most improved player,’' defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said last week. ’‘I think he’s changed his upper body — he looks more stout and he looks quicker. He’s more explosive, he looks more powerful right now and he’s adapted to the scheme and understanding things well. He’s taking advantage of the situation.”
Nunez-Roches played in 26 percent of the defensive snaps a year ago, recording nine tackles, one tackle for loss, one fumble recovery and a quarterback hit.
But when the Bucs decided to move on from defensive tackle Beau Allen, Nunez-Roches came to camp knowing that there was an increased role in the defensive line rotation to be earned. Playing in a 3-4 defense, he figures to back up Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh.
With each practice, Nunez-Roches says he feels himself getting better in every facet of his game.
A year ago, the Bucs were the top defense in the NFL against the run, allowing 73.8 yards per game. Vea, Suh and William Gholston were a big part of that. In 2017 with the Kansas City Chiefs, Nunez-Roches started 11 games and became known as a run stopper, finishing with 24 tackles.
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The former Southern Miss standout joined the Bucs in 2018 after he was cut by the Chiefs and played in only three games, producing two tackles. Two years later, he looks ― and sounds — like a different player.
“Nacho is always a high-motor guy,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s in great shape. I love the way he practices. He brings energy, and if you’re not going full speed, you’re getting your (butt) kicked.”
Just as Nunez-Roches has grown, so will his role.
‘‘As we stand today, I would probably say he was most improved so far (from) what I’ve seen coming back and the brief amount of work we’ve had together,” defensive line coach Kacey Rodgers said. ’‘The way we’re going to use Nacho this year, he had to bulk up some. We had some changes in our lin,e and where he fits with the pieces we’ve got, he’s going to have to really take some of the load (and) share some of the load with Vita on the inside. He needed to bulk up and he took the challenge.”
Nunez-Roches admits it has been a bit of an adjustment talking smack to Brady, the six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
‘‘It’s actually nerve-wracking to me,” he said.
But he’s going to continue to talk all his smack and, hopefully, smack a few opposing quarterbacks in the process.
‘‘I love it — every down, every play,” Nunez-Roches said. ’‘This is my joy. This is what I love. I can’t hide it when I’m making plays. If I can bring energy and bring somebody along, I can make them play even better. Sometimes it’s already hard enough banging up against guys, but when you have joy and passion, sometimes your traits and characteristics come out even more.”