TAMPA — Heading into a new year, Major Wright found himself in no mood to celebrate.
The 2012 season had just ended for Wright and the Chicago Bears when the former Florida Gators standout woke up on the morning of Dec. 31 to hear the disconcerting news.
“I was shocked, I just couldn’t believe it,’’ said the new Buccaneers safety, referring to the dismissal of Lovie Smith as Chicago’s head coach after nine seasons and 81 wins. “We had just gone 10-6 and missed the playoffs by one game, so it’s fair to say it was shocking.’’
While Smith retreated to his basement last year to plot his return to the NFL, Wright returned for his fourth season with the Bears — and the first without his mentor.
Although Wright posted 100 tackles, two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles for the Bears in 2013, Chicago allowed him to test free agency, and now he is reunited with Smith.
With safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron hobbled by injuries during spring practice, Wright has seized the opportunity to show new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier the skills he honed in Gainesville and Chicago.
“It’s critical for us to have great safety play,’’ said Smith, who is expected to implement the core Cover 2 principles he learned in Tampa as an assistant to Tony Dungy. “It’s been like that since the beginning of time, and I’d say we’re as good as anybody around at the safety position.’’
Wright, 25, figures to be listed behind Barron and Goldson when the first depth chart is revealed during training camp. But he also knows his familiarity with Smith won’t hurt him.
“Lovie being in Tampa played a big role in me coming here,’’ said Wright, who signed a one-year deal worth $795,000. “That’s my coach. He’s the one who drafted me, and I was with him for three years, so I’ve got a good feel for the man. I also know this defense, so that played a role, too.’’
While playing in Chicago, Wright saw Goldson emerge as a two-time Pro Bowler in San Francisco. Now, Goldson has had a chance to observe Wright as a teammate.
“There’s a lot of talent out here on this field and it’s going to be a fun season, I believe,’’ Goldson said. “Our secondary is looking pretty solid, and there’s a new mindset around this team. ... I think we’re on to something.’’
Wright, a third-round pick in 2010, made 42 starts for the Bears, registering nine interceptions and three forced fumbles. He has returned an interception for a touchdown each of the past three seasons.
“Coach Smith is always going to preach takeaways,’’ Wright said. “Even when the receiver catches a ball, punch it out. We always run to the ball. Every day in practice — go get the ball.’’
And when Tampa Bay’s defense forces a turnover this fall, possession will be in the hands of a new Bucs quarterback that Wright grew to appreciate in the Windy City.
“Josh McCown is the real deal, believe me,’’ Wright said. “He studies the game so well that when he comes out on the field, it’s like boom, he’s got this. I wasn’t surprised by his success last year.”
“My first two years in Chicago, I ended up getting more playing time than I thought because of nicks and bruises to other guys,’’ he said.
Goldson and Barron still have to prove themselves to Smith, and their play was erratic last year as the Bucs finished 4-12. Communication breakdowns led to several blown coverages and Goldson racked up nearly $500,000 in fines for illegal hits.
“Safety play is huge in this system,’’ Wright said. “It’s gigantic, because if you have any second-guessing going on back there, you can be beat for a touchdown. You have to know what you’re doing. We’re like the quarterbacks of the defense, and our goal is not to have any busts.’’
Former Bucs lineman Yarno has cancer
JACKSONVILLE — Veteran Jaguars line coach and former Bucs offensive lineman George Yarno was diagnosed with cancer.
Jaguars coach Gus Bradley did not disclose the type of cancer Yarno has, but said Yarno will not be taking a leave of absence from the team. Yarno will miss some practice time with the team because of his treatment schedule.
Yarno, who played for the Bucs from 1979-83 and 1985-87, was at the Jaguars’ practice on Thursday but spent most of his time on the sideline.
Yarno has coached for 23 years, including six years in the NFL. He joined the Jaguars coaching staff as offensive line coach in January of 2013.
Yarno, 55, also had NFL coaching stops in Tampa Bay and Detroit and also played with the Falcons and Oilers and the USFL’s Denver Gold.
SAINTS: Newly acquired safety Jairus Byrd had surgery to address a nagging problem with a disc in his back and is expected to be fully recovered by the start of training camp.
SEAHAWKS: Doug Baldwin agreed to a contract extension that locks up the former undrafted wide receiver through the 2016 season.
The deal, first reported by ESPN.com, is expected to be worth up to $13 million over the next three seasons.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.