NASHVILLE — A bag of ice was taped to Zyon McCollum’s sore left hamstring. His day, and likely his chance of playing in Saturday’s preseason game against the Titans, was steadily evaporating.
“It’s football. It sucks, man,” McCollum said following the Bucs’ joint practice with the Titans on Thursday. “Hate for it to happen this way but I’ve just got to be positive.”
In his first NFL preseason game last Saturday night, the fifth-round pick from Sam Houston State was beaten on a double move for a touchdown. Now McCollum is just beaten up.
Such is the life of an NFL rookie cornerback trying to learn how to cover receivers at high speeds with a low heart rate.
As McCollum stood on the sideline listening to the national anthem prior to the preseason opener against Miami, he surveyed the crowd at Raymond James Stadium and a flood of emotions washed over him.
“For sure nerves. Always nerves,” McCollum said. “... I was kind of thinking back on, like, all my first times. First time playing high school. First time playing college. So it felt pretty similar, just a lot bigger stadium. More people.”
The Bearkats averaged about 8,700 fans per home football game and that includes the 25,007 at NRG Stadium in a game against Stephen F. Austin.
The size of the stadium, as well as the stage, is one thing in the NFL. But the biggest adjustment is the speed of the game.
It’s not your 40-yard dash time that matters, although McCollum already is one of the best athletes in the league. He ran a 4.33, had a 39.5-inch vertical jump and a standing broad jump of 132 inches and the NFL scouting combine.
As they say in the league, there’s practice speed, then there’s game speed and they aren’t nearly the same.
“Two completely different things,” McCollum said. “I went back to practice the next day and said, ‘This is slower.’ It was so amazing to me. But knowing that speed to now bringing that speed to practice, I know it will make me a better player.”
How good can McCollum be?
The figurative jump from Sam Houston State to the NFL is a big one. As a rookie, his most immediate impact will be on special teams and McCollum should excel covering kicks.
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But if past is prologue, McCollum will find himself in an important role in the Bucs secondary. Already he is listed as the backup to starting right cornerback Carlton Davis.
A year ago, the Bucs were decimated by a rash of injuries in the secondary, forcing them to sign free agents such as Richard Sherman off the street and play him the entire game five days later against New England.
What’s more, cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean will be free agents at the end of the season.
“It’s just basically staying ready,” McCollum said. “You know you’re going to be a big factor on special teams early. It’s hard for a player to go 17 or 20 games without having any type of dinks.”
McCollum’s teammates and coaches already like what they have seen from the 23-year-old.
He is learning to play more zone-coverage concepts, which is an adjustment from Sam Houston State but not and overwhelming one.
Last Saturday, McCollum made only one big mistake and it cost the Bucs seven points. He was beaten for a 22-yard touchdown reception on a double move by Dolphins receiver Lynn Bowden Jr.
“It was almost like in my head, what’s the worst thing?” McCollum said. “Well, the worst thing has already happened. I’m just not going to let that discourage me. I’m going to continue to play aggressive and then just learn form it. I can’t make the same mistake twice.”
Bucs defensive backs coach Kevin Ross said he’s happy about the way McCollum is improving.
“He’s getting better,” Ross said “He’s trying to get his technique and everything down. The more he sees, the better he gets. He just needs those reps and go from there. He’s got all the ingredients.”
Three years ago, Murphy-Bunting was a wide-eyed rookie making the jump to the NFL from Central Michigan. His first preseason game was at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh against the Steelers.
He didn’t perform particularly well that game, admittedly a bit overwhelmed. Coach Bruce Arians passed Murphy-Bunting on the charter flight home and asked, “Did you play?”
“I think my best advice to Zyon has probably been staying true to himself and staying on top of his technique,” Murphy-Bunting said. “I told him when you go to the league, you don’t have a lot of time during practice to work on things like that. You work on your techniques and work on your everyday drills. So I told him to stay on top of that and he’s good at watching film.
“So it’s about being true to yourself and not letting the outside world take over.”
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