TAMPA — Mark Barron hit the rookie wall last season, but he didn't let it hit back.
The Bucs safety began the season by tipping away a potential winning pass from the Panthers' Cam Newton to Louis Murphy. He ended the season with a game-saving deflection of a pass from the Falcons' Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez.
In between, however, the two-time national champion from Alabama had games during which he disappeared in a secondary that was the worst against the pass in the NFL.
"I think you could see where he hit (the rookie wall) a little bit," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "I think he came busting through it. I think he made some plays at the beginning of the year, and I think he made some plays at the end of the year. The Atlanta game-winning play was a big play for us, for him. And I think he kind of took that and ran with it."
Barron, the seventh overall pick in 2012, will tell you it was embarrassing to be part of a defense that allowed 297 passing yards per game and 30 passing touchdowns.
"That wasn't what we wanted," he said.
Barron finished with 88 tackles, 10 passes defensed and only one interception. But much has changed about the Tampa Bay secondary since it walked off the field for the last time in 2012 with a 22-17 win at Atlanta.
Tampa Bay signed 2012 All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson. Then it traded for three-time All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis and drafted Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks in the second round.
From a physical standpoint, Goldson resembles Barron. Both are 6 feet 2 with long dreadlocks. Barron, at 212, is a dozen pounds heavier.
Their games are similar as well. Both are ferocious hitters who thrive on playing near the line of scrimmage and excel against the run. At the moment, it looks as though Barron, the strong safety, will play near the tackle box (close to the line of scrimmage and between the hashmarks), where Ronde Barber set up shop for 16 years while playing cornerback and safety.
"I would say I'm comfortable everywhere," Barron said. "I have a lot of experience (in the tackle box). I like every part of the game. I like making plays, period, regardless of whether I'm in centerfield or in the box."
Some critics believe Barron and Goldson might be too similar, and not just physically. They wonder if either can excel in coverage. Schiano said he has no such concerns.
"They can play the run. They can play the pass," he said. "I like the combination."
Goldson has not been bashful about taking over the leadership of the secondary from Barber, who retired during the offseason. Although only in his first season with the Bucs, he has made a quick impression on Barron and the other defensive backs.
"I understand that I'm here to definitely help the younger guys out and win football games," said Goldson, who was drafted out of Washington by the 49ers in the fourth round in 2007. "I approach the practice field and in the classroom to show guys how to approach this game."
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A year ago, Barron's education began with Barber. Now it continues with Goldson and Revis.
"It's a great resource," Barron said. "That's knowledge.
"You only become a better player when you learn more. So that's a great resource for all of us, including me."
Barron is a quick study, and the walls have tumbled down. Schiano couldn't be happier.
"He's a guy who is not a rookie anymore," Schiano said. "I can see that just the way he carries himself, the way he prepares and practices. He and Dashon are going to be a good one-two punch back there."