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Center of attention: Bucs’ Robert Hainsey steps in for Ryan Jensen

The third-round pick from Notre Dame has made the transition from tackle, He is smart, tough and looking to honor Jensen with a little nastiness.
Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey isn't looking to become a carbon copy of Ryan Jensen, but he does think he can bring a little more of Jensen's snarl and swagger to his game.
Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey isn't looking to become a carbon copy of Ryan Jensen, but he does think he can bring a little more of Jensen's snarl and swagger to his game. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 29|Updated Jul. 29

TAMPA — It’s not enough to merely replace Ryan Jensen at center. You must also find a way to honor him.

Perhaps as consequential as providing an accurate snap, it is just as important to deliver it with the same snarl.

That was the message Friday in training camp from second-year Notre Dame offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, who spent his rookie season studying every move Jensen made before and after the whistle.

“The way Ryan approaches every day and every game is with the mentality that he is the baddest dude on the field and he usually is,” said Hainsey, who practiced at center with the first-team offense a day after Jensen went down with a knee injury. “And being that guy ... in locker rooms across the NFL, I think that means something and I think that carries a certain level of respect.

“And so, I’m not Ryan Jensen and that’s not who I’m trying to be. I have to be myself. But that chip on his shoulder that he plays with, if I’m out there I think I want to have a little bit of that myself because I owe that to him. And whoever is out there owes that to him to continue that presence of the type of man and the type of player he is on that field.”

Robert Hainsey is front and center on the offensive line Friday, a day after Ryan Jensen goes down with a knee injury.
Robert Hainsey is front and center on the offensive line Friday, a day after Ryan Jensen goes down with a knee injury. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Jensen sustained a “significant” left knee injury during a two-minute drill in practice Thursday.

“I don’t know the severity of it per se, but I do know he’ll miss some significant time, up to a couple of months,” coach Todd Bowles said Friday. “Whether he’ll be back later in the season, November or December, that depends on what they find in the knee but he won’t be available anytime soon.”

The Bucs have a decision to make, and their lack of impulsiveness may have tipped their hand.

They could have rushed to sign the best available center ― Browns free agent J.C. Tretter. Instead, the Bucs’ choice to let their players battle it out showed confidence in Hainsey and Nick Leverett, who have no NFL starts between them.

The 25-year-old Leverett, who has appeared in two NFL games, also provided a personal tribute to Jensen.

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“It’s always hard to see a teammate go down,” Leverett said. “Especially Ryan Jensen. He’s my role model. He’s a great leader and a guy I look up to. So I just want to say I really appreciate Ryan for what he’s done for this team and this organization.”

Perhaps none of the Bucs offensive linemen have come farther faster than Hainsey, who was transitioning from tackle to guard this time last year after being selected in the third round in 2021.

Hainsey benefitted by being a teammate with veteran center A.Q. Shipley, who sustained a career-ending neck injury with the Bucs in 2020. Shipley transitioned immediately to the job of assistant offensive line coach, but he missed his kids and decided to return to his home in Arizona following the Bucs’ playoff loss to the Rams last season.

“(Hainsey) had said something about asking me what I used to do for offseason training. I told him ... if you want to come out with me and spend some time, I can teach you through some training,” Shipley said. “He was like, ‘If you’re 100 percent serious, I’m in.’

“He put the time in and it was awesome.”

What impressed Shipley the most about Hainsey was his intelligence. Playing center for quarterback Tom Brady presents its own expectations. Aside from Brady’s hygienic demands ― centers must wear a glove on their hand, pour lots of baby powder down their backside and double fold a towel to tuck into their football pants ― he expects his center to be able to call out defensive fronts and communicate blocking assignments.

“Tom goes down to the nth degree when it comes to details,” Shipley said. “Everything with him is communication. All he wants to know is what you’re thinking and he wants to know it fast. ... Now with Tom, you better have that answer by the time you’re at the line of scrimmage.”

No pressure, but if Robert Hainsey is going to be snapping the ball regularly to Tom Brady, he had better be on point.
No pressure, but if Robert Hainsey is going to be snapping the ball regularly to Tom Brady, he had better be on point. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Welcome to the new world of Robert Hainsey ― or simply Bob, if you’d prefer ― who is still trying to grasp what this season could be like for him. His job is not only to block for Brady, but to not allow so much as a fly to land on him.

“I feel very ready,” Hainsey said. “I think I did a lot of the preparation over the last year and really this offseason working with A.Q.”

As a rookie, Hainsey played 31 offensive snaps in nine games, exclusively as Blaine Gabbert’s center during mop-up duty.

“Each (game) was better, honestly,” Hainsey said. “The first one was Miami and I remember coming off ... Blaine was saying like, ‘Communicate more.’ And then the next one was a little better and a little better and a little better. Obviously, it wasn’t as much as I would’ve loved to play but noticing myself improving still makes a huge difference in how I feel going out there any time.”

The final prognosis for Jensen may not come for a week until more tests are completed.

If there is a silver lining, the injury did not occur a week before the Sept. 11 opener at Dallas and there is time to evaluate Hainsey, Leverett and others.

Replacing a Pro Bowl center is one thing. But replicating his role as an enforcer appears equally important.

“(Hainsey’s) been a tough guy,” Bowles said. “He comes from Notre Dame, he’s very smart, he can see defenses, he can help the quarterback that way. He can help the offensive line. He’s diligent about it and he wants to be good. There’s not a day he doesn’t come in and watch tape. So it’s just a matter of putting it on tape and getting a chance to play.”

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