TAMPA - They are in the middle of the action and on the fringes of the debate. In assessing a 2012 Buccaneers defense that proved stellar against the run and overmatched against the pass, most of the postmortems have focused on a sporadic pass rush up front and a soft secondary. Crouched between the highly scrutinized units, a group of young linebackers is poised to show significant improvement in Year 2 under coach Greg Schiano's defensive principles. "We don't mind being overlooked,'' said third-year middle linebacker Mason Foster, who made some impressive strides after a rocky rookie season. "I'm happy that we've got great safeties, great secondary, great defensive line. It all ties in together. They make our job easier, we make their job easier.''
While Foster and weak-side linebacker Lavonte David, who led the Bucs with 139 tackles as a rookie, are assured of returning as starters, there is an open competition on the strong side. Quincy Black, enjoying his best season as a pro, suffered a career-threatening neck injury last fall. Special teams standout Dekoda Watson is battling free-agent addition Jonathan Casillas, who started only eight games in four years with the Saints. Casillas turned in a critical special teams play for New Orleans as a rookie, recovering an onside kick to start the second half and spark the Saints to a Super Bowl victory against the Colts. "(Casillas) is a run-and-hit guy,'' said Schiano, the former Rutgers coach who tried to persuade the Jersey City, N.J., native to remain in-state instead of attending Wisconsin. "He plays fast, and so does Dekoda. You've got two guys that are similar, and they're both very good special teams players. They're both going to have a hat on Sundays.'' Watson, a former Florida State standout, isn't taking anything for granted as he heads into his fourth season in Tampa. "It's going well and we've got good competition here in camp,'' he said. "That creates better players. Jonathan and I are pushing each other. I just want to be the best I can be and show them they can trust me. The one thing I know about football is you can never get too comfortable or complacent.'' Watson's athleticism is intriguing. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he has the size and strength to maintain the edge and turn running plays back inside, a key requisite for the position. Schiano calls him an "elite'' special teams player, but Watson wants more. "I've only known him for 20 months, but this is a guy who has a fire,'' Schiano said. "I can tell you that Dekoda understands the defense umpteen times better than he did this time last year. When he gets it, he's an explosive player.'' Former linebackers coach Bob Fraser, now the assistant defensive coordinator, said the Watson/Casillas duel could take a while to settle. "We have to find a way to fill Quincy's void,'' Fraser said. "Both of those guys are ridiculous athletes.'' After only one pro season, David is already prompting comparisons to Bucs icon Derrick Brooks, an 11-time Pro Bowl selection. "Lavonte is a great worker ... that's No. 1,'' said Fraser. "He is the perfect guy for that position in our defense. Coming out of Nebraska, we knew he was going to be good. What we didn't know was that it would happen so fast.'' David assumed the defensive signal-calling responsibilities that fell across Foster's shoulder pads in 2011, when the third-round pick out of Washington often struggled in space. Although Foster isn't likely to make Bucs fans forget about the exceptional coverage skills of Shelton Quarles, he's growing more confident in a defense that can be particularly demanding at the middle linebacker position. "I feel like I've got a better feel mentally,'' Foster said. "I feel like me and Lavonte have great chemistry. We try to push each other, and I think we are on our way.'' Fraser is in no mood to argue. "It's a good group,'' he said. "Those guys are working very hard to be the best they can be.'' [email protected] (813) 259-7833 Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO