TAMPA — Kickoff is more than five months away, and the Bucs have plenty of time to alter course.
But after three grueling days on the practice field during a voluntary minicamp, this much we know about Mason Foster: If the Bucs played a game today, he'd be their starting middle linebacker.
That fact brings some clarity to a situation that has been muddled throughout the offseason, which the Bucs began with some intention of using Foster as an outside linebacker. But since deciding to allow Foster to take another shot at the middle during this week's workouts, coach Greg Schiano and his staff seem one step closer to settling on Foster as their defensive field general.
"He had a good three days," said Schiano, who stopped short of handing Foster the job.
Foster admitted he was overwhelmed last season as a rookie, taking the reigns at a new position (he played weakside linebacker at Washington) without the benefit of offseason preparation because of the lockout.
He and his coaches probably would still say he's better suited to play on the weakside. But he now is better equipped to handle the middle versus last season.
"It was definitely tough, but I thought I could handle it," Foster said. "But having the time now to sit at home and study your playbook and come talk to the coaches at any time during the day — being able to sit and go over stuff — that definitely gives you an advantage.
"I see what I was missing last year."
It's not clear if Foster will run the huddle and relay calls from the sideline, something he struggled with in 2011. Quincy Black, the strongside linebacker last season, did some of that this week in addition to playing on the weakside. Either way, Foster now welcomes the challenges that proved burdensome last season.
"You know how to handle situations now," Foster said. "You know how to handle presnap (decisions). Last year, it was kind of like you're rushing through and trying to handle everything. (Now) it's going good."
That said, Schiano is playing things close to the vest. He remained noncommittal about middle linebacker and both outside positions. Black and Adam Hayward often accompanied Foster with the first-team defense, and there might be other combinations.
But the lack of viable options and time means Foster is likely to stay put in the absence of an unforeseen roster move. The Bucs toyed with signing a middle linebacker during free agency but decided against it because of price and other considerations.
"We're going to move them around right now," Schiano said of his linebackers. "We can't (mess) around too long. It's good to mess around and try guys at different spots. But then we have to lock in."
Foster also hopes to be in better physical shape than last season. He first battled a lingering ankle sprain that slowed his reaction time, then fought a pair of dead legs as the rookie wall smacked him in the face.
He still managed a team-high 126 tackles, but the impact plays the Bucs hoped for came intermittently.
"During the season, you're trying to ignore (the dead legs)," Foster said. "You don't want to think about it too much. But it does wear on you."
Now with Schiano and the staff set to review the week's events and plot their course — at linebacker and other positions — they hope this week of 12-hour work days enabled them to drive home a few messages.
The camp was not only about instilling Schiano's high standards of discipline on the field and in the meeting room but also team-building.
"My biggest thing was to make sure that everybody left with the core principles of what's important to us as a staff and now as an organization," Schiano said.
"We've kind of laid the foundation for what's important. Now the relationship part, that formulates now. We've added some free agents. We're going to add some draft picks. What we do here with the guys who were here, the guys who are added, as they come together, as those personalities and those relationships form, that's really what makes your team."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]