TAMPA — There is something old-school about the Bucs’ rookie class. Or maybe some if its members were just old while they were in school.
Defensive back Josh Hayes played six years and 68 games of college football. He won three national championships in four seasons at FCS North Dakota State, played three games at Virginia and finished his last season at Kansas State.
Offensive lineman Cody Mauch, who grew up on a farm that had been in his family for five generations, played 62 games at North Dakota State.
Linebacker Jose Ramirez started his college career at Arizona in 2017. He played 48 games during stops with the Wildcats, Riverside City College in California and Eastern Michigan.
All three players are 24, the same age as third-year linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and a year younger than quarterback Kyle Trask, who is entering his third season.
By contrast, Tryon-Shoyinka had only 14 career starts at Washington before opting out during the COVID-19 year of 2020. A first-round pick of the Bucs in 2021, he has struggled to make plays at outside linebacker and has four sacks in each of his first two NFL seasons.
So how were so many players able to stay in school? In addition to maybe a redshirt freshman season, the NCAA gave all athletes whose 2020-21 seasons were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic six years to compete in four full seasons of their sport. Then there’s the transfer portal, and name, image and likeness deals that lessen the urgency to jump to the NFL to pay bills.
Talent will always trump experience, and the Bucs believe Hayes, Mauch and Ramirez offer both.
Ramirez, a three-star recruit out of Auburndale, redshirted at Arizona, then had his eyes opened to his football mortality when he found himself at Riverside City College.
“All our paths were kind of the same, just going to different places,” Ramirez said. “Being in college for six years, I feel like it just teaches you faith and patience. I feel like the only thing I learned during the process was don’t change your dreams, change your habits.
“Everywhere I went, I learned I wasn’t giving my full potential. It’s a ladder. I wasn’t at my full capacity. I feel like now I’m back at square bottom, but at least now I know how to get myself up out of that.”
Hayes was able to gain a universe of football knowledge and experience. He played under four different defensive systems and multiple positions at defensive back. The Bucs plan to use that diversity to train Hayes at nickel cornerback and safety.
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“I’ve experienced a lot of different playbooks, different leagues, different types of talents and stuff like that,” Hayes said. “But I think it just helps to kind of slow the game of football down, you know? Coming in, you know it’s the NFL now.”
Bucs coach Todd Bowles said coaches love that they are getting more mature men with lots of game experience.
“You like the maturity part because they played a lot of games,” Bowles said. “It used to be like that back in the day, maybe 10 years ago, we’re talking about, and now they come out (of college) early. So you have to kind of teach them what they know in college and then try to advance from there.
“But guys that have played 40, 50, 60 games in college and have a good understanding of how to play the game, they learn it faster. That’s a big advantage.”
From a character standpoint, there’s more of a track record to study with older players. They have overcome adversity, an important trait for surviving and thriving in the NFL.
“We feel like we got a lot of good people,” said Bucs director of player personnel Mike Biehl. “We got guys that fit what we’re looking for as a culture and fit in the locker room. We put such an emphasis on that the last six, seven years, and it’s paid off if you look at our success we’ve had.
“(General manager Jason Licht) says it all the time: We can identify talent. We know guys that can play, but we’ve done such a phenomenal job recently of identifying the right kind of people, too, so when you look at our draft this year … (we) got great human beings that are going to do everything they can to contribute to make this team better and then also be solid in the community, too.”
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.