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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2017
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ex-Bull McKenzie gets shot as Bucs' starting LB

Raheem Morris didn't mince words.

When the questions started flying Friday about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' plan to replace six-year veteran middle linebacker Barrett Ruud with a pair of kids who don't have six NFL games under their belt, he was rather frank.

"They bring a wealth of inexperience," Morris said of rookie Mason Foster and second-year pro Tyrone McKenzie.

Though his NFL résumé consists of a handful of snaps in three games late last season, McKenzie ran the first-team defense on the first day of training camp at One Buc Place. It will be up to Foster to unseat him.

If Morris is bothered by that, he didn't let it show. But then, why would he? His team went 10-6 starting 10 rookies at one point or another last season, so this is nothing new for the third-year coach.

"If I was a soft-minded coach I'd think it was a disadvantage," Morris said of the situation at middle linebacker. "But I kind of look at it as an advantage, as an opportunity for me to show how well we coach."

It's also an opportunity for the Bucs to show how well they've drafted and scouted players such as McKenzie, whom they claimed off waivers from New England in December.

A former USF standout, McKenzie was a third-round pick of the Patriots in 2010. The Bucs signed him to a three-year, $1.29 million contract, so apparently they see potential in him.

"He's a thumper," Morris said of the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Riverview native. "He's a big individual who is very good in the box. He has a demanding (middle) linebacker type of attitude, and he's a no-nonsense type of guy.

"He's very similar to Foster, who was a very active guy in college. Hopefully he can bring some of that nasty thump and swagger that you get from different types of linebackers."

The type of linebacker Morris spoke of is the type many of Ruud's critics have been asking for. Ruud, who became an unrestricted free agent when the lockout ended, led the Bucs in tackles each of the past four seasons, but he was not considered physically intimidating.

That's something the Bucs hope to get with McKenzie and Foster. What they are sure to lose, at least in the short term, is the ability to quickly read a play, line up the defense and adjust on the fly.

That won't keep McKenzie or Foster from taking over the play-calling duties. Morris said those two will be responsible for that when they're in the game, though he doesn't automatically expect the same results.

"Barrett Ruud has a unique talent and ability to do certain things, and I wouldn't ask those guys to do that right away," Morris said. "We didn't ask Barrett to do that right away so we have to have the proper plan for the individual."

Foster's plan is the same as it's been all offseason: study the playbook until he can read it backwards and then take that knowledge onto the field each day and prove he belongs there.

If Friday was any indication, he won't have a hard time succeeding. During the first round of 11-on-11 drills, McKenzie picked off backup quarterback Josh Johnson to secure the first interception of training camp.

"Yeah, but then I dropped (an interception opportunity) later on," McKenzie said. "So that was just one play. Now I have to make some more."

He figures to get plenty of opportunities. Based on the fact he was here late last year, the starting middle linebacker's job is all but McKenzie's to lose, Morris said. That situation could certainly change, though.

Morris said undrafted rookie free agent Derrell Smith, a linebacker out of Syracuse the Bucs considered drafting in the seventh round, will also get a chance to replace Ruud.

Ruud may even re-emerge, Morris hinted.

"You never close the door on anything," Morris said when asked if the Bucs had moved on from Ruud. "All of those guys are always in negotiations. That is a (general manager) Mark (Dominik) thing."

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