TAMPA — Rookie middle linebacker Kwon Alexander is the only player who is supposed to speak up in the defensive huddle. It's ironic, because the quiet catalyst for the Bucs is someone who rarely has too much to say otherwise.
"He's opened up more," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "When he first got here, he didn't say a word."
Also silenced are any concerns that the 21-year-old pro from LSU might not handle the responsibilities that come with being the quarterback of the Bucs' defense.
Only Alexander and All-Pro outside linebacker Lavonte David have played each of Tampa Bay's 205 snaps on defense this season. Alexander ranks second on the team in tackles with 23, four behind David.
But last week at Houston, Alexander got his hands on the football, making a diving interception of a pass from Texans quarterback Ryan Mallet deflected by blitzing linebacker Danny Lansanah.
"It was rewarding to see my little brother, Kwon, getting his first interception," said Lansanah, who had three picks last season. "He can never forget about me."
The play set up the Bucs' only touchdown, a 32-yard screen pass from Jameis Winston to running back Charles Sims. Those are the kinds of game-changing moments coach Lovie Smith envisioned getting from Alexander when he put him in the starting lineup in training camp over veteran free agent Bruce Carter.
"I was trying to make a big play because we needed the energy and the momentum," Alexander said. "As soon as I saw Danny Lansanah tip the ball, I said, 'Oh, there goes the chance.' So I ran and dove and caught the ball. I was so happy. That was my first interception ever in a game, so I was very excited."
Alexander was named the NFC rookie of the week. The football eventually rested in the bottom of his locker. Based on how many times he has gotten his hands on passes already this season, he'd better make room for others.
"He seems to be in the right place at the right time," Bucs linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson said.
Considering who is coaching him, Alexander couldn't have landed in a better place despite his frustration of lasting until the fourth round after his decision to declare for the NFL draft as a 20-year-old junior.
Nickerson set the standard for Bucs middle linebackers when he joined as a free agent from the Steelers in 1993. In Tampa Bay, he became a five-time Pro Bowl player.
"There's a lot of things that he just hasn't seen so far," Nickerson of Alexander. "Being focused as a rookie player with a lot on your plate, it's pretty tough. But Kwon has done a heck of a job so far with it. It's not easy. There are veteran players who can't quite make that adjustment at (middle) linebacker."
Alexander was just what coach Lovie Smith sought in his version of the Tampa 2 defense — a quick-twitch, fast middle linebacker who can turn his hips and drop into coverage in the deep center of the field that sits vacant between the two high safeties.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Smith had grown a bit spoiled. In his first job with the Bucs as linebackers coach, he had Nickerson. As defensive coordinator with the Rams, he had London Fletcher. With the Bears, it was future Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Alexander faces one of his toughest tests today in trying to slow Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, by far Cam Newton's favorite receiver. Olsen had 18 catches for 193 yards and a touchdown in two games against the Bucs last year.
He was targeted 25 times in the past two games. He has 14 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns, both coming in Sunday's 27-22 victory over New Orleans.
"That's a great tight end," Alexander said. "I've been watching film of him. He's amazing. But I can't wait to play him. I love the challenge, I love to play the game. So when it's a big challenge like Cam Newton or Greg Olson, it's going to be a real fun game."
Nickerson says Alexander will make mistakes and has a lot on his plate. But he makes up for them with effort.
"He plays fast," Nickerson said. "That's the first thing I told him. Nobody's perfect. I told him in 16 years, I haven't seen a player play a perfect game. What you can control is how hard and how fast you play. He plays hard and he plays fast."
And quietly, he's making a name for himself.