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Bucs rookie Zyon McCollum was maligned for his play Monday night, and molded by it

Thrust into nickel-corner duty by injuries, the rookie struggled in Tampa Bay’s win over New Orleans.
Saints wide receiver Jarvis Landry (5) eludes the one-handed grasp of Bucs cornerback Zyon McCollum (27) in the second half of Tampa Bay's 17-16 win Monday night. McCollum, a rookie, finished with four tackles but missed a handful more.
Saints wide receiver Jarvis Landry (5) eludes the one-handed grasp of Bucs cornerback Zyon McCollum (27) in the second half of Tampa Bay's 17-16 win Monday night. McCollum, a rookie, finished with four tackles but missed a handful more. [ MARK LOMOGLIO | AP ]
Published Dec. 7, 2022|Updated Dec. 7, 2022

TAMPA — By the end of the most humbling night of Zyon McCollum’s professional life to date, social media had torched the Bucs rookie far worse than the Saints did.

Even as McCollum struggled mightily in his de facto debut as an NFL nickel cornerback, cyberspace was leveling him with crown-of-the-helmet candor.

Zyon McCollum is an absolute liability.

Zyon McCollum couldn’t even tackle my 80-year-old dad.

Zyon McCollum might be the worst corner I’ve ever watched.

“Actually, I deleted all my social media (earlier) in the season,” said the Bucs’ fifth-round pick, who played 41 of his team’s 59 defensive snaps and finished with four total tackles.

“I re-downloaded it a little bit. I know that media is not very kind to me ... which is understandable. Fans are frustrated when a guy doesn’t make a play. I share the same frustrations. I’m not going to let it hang on me though.”

Fortunately for the 23-year-old Texas native, Todd Bowles is a bit more diplomatic than Twitter. In the immediate wake of his team’s fibrillating 17-16 win against the Saints, the Bucs coach indicated some singe marks stand to reason when a youngster is tossed into a figurative fire.

And with a smorgasbord of injured defenders, including two veterans (Mike Edwards, Sean Murphy-Bunting) with nickel-corner experience, the Bucs had no choice but to employ every healthy soul into its secondary.

Despite his growing pains, Bucs cornerback Zyon McCollum says he is a better player after Monday night's victory over the Saints. 
“Oh, a hundred percent,” he said. “More versatile, better player, better knowledge of things and where I’m supposed to be."
Despite his growing pains, Bucs cornerback Zyon McCollum says he is a better player after Monday night's victory over the Saints. “Oh, a hundred percent,” he said. “More versatile, better player, better knowledge of things and where I’m supposed to be." [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

“(McCollum) missed a few tackles, but he did a lot of good things as well,” Bowles said. “For him to have not played in nickel since training camp, I didn’t think he did a bad job. There are some things he can get better at in there, obviously. It’s a very difficult position, but he fought and he held his own.”

As the nuances are learned, the practice reps lost to an early season hamstring ailment are regained, and the culture shock that comes with the transition from the Football Championship Subdivision to the NFL wears off, McCollum projects as a key secondary cog. The athleticism is there; he ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash and had a 39.5-inch vertical jump at the NFL scouting combine.

But those measurements weren’t much help Monday night. McCollum’s grades in run defense (45.6) and coverage (33.3) were the lowest of any Bucs player according to Pro Football Focus. By his own admission, he struggled to tackle.

“It jumped out (on the tape),” said McCollum, who helped lead Sam Houston State to a Football Championship Subdivision title in 2020. “To me, just being able to control my speed. Oftentimes, I want to be the first guy there, I’m full speed, and that tends to get me out of control.”

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His youth was further exposed on a fourth-quarter rub route, when Saints outside receiver Jarvis Landry picked him (an infraction by letter of the law), springing rookie Chris Olave for a 26-yard reception that led to a Saints field goal.

“I mean, it’s bang-bang,” McCollum said. “I’ve never been one to cry about penalties and stuff, just line up and play the next play and let’s see if we can get off. But I mean, it’s tough. We talk at the (defensive backs) room, maybe let’s try to do something so that won’t ever happen.”

At least the learning experience didn’t come with a loss, and McCollum found support from peers for his effort in a daunting situation.

“Proud of him,” said safety Logan Ryan, who logged all 59 defensive snaps in his first game back from an Oct. 2 foot fracture.

“I mean, we were really down on numbers. ... I definitely had a task coming back off my injury. We had a lot of guys out, and the guys that played that game, they were bold, they were brave and they were able to get it done. So I’m proud of Zyon.”

Quite a contrasting tone from Twitter, which fails to note that a number of prominent Bucs players — including the pioneer of the nickel-corner spot (Ronde Barber) — struggled greatly at the outset of their careers.

At any rate, McCollum said Wednesday he’s a better player than he was even 48 hours before.

“Oh, a hundred percent,” he said. “More versatile, better player, better knowledge of things and where I’m supposed to be. I’m anticipating and can’t wait for the next (game), really.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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