Times Staff Writer
Second-year safety will be competing for a starting job when minicamp begins today.
TAMPA - This time last year, Jermaine Phillips was a wide-eyed rookie with no clue what it meant to be an NFL player. A fifth-round pick from Georgia, he was a long shot just to earn a spot on the Bucs roster.
But entering minicamp today, he is neck-and-neck with third-year pros Dwight Smith and John Howell in a battle for the starting free-safety job on the league's top-ranked defense.
"It's a man's game," the 22-year-old Phillips said. "It's not meant for boys."
Growth hormones may be illegal in pro football, but players are forced to mature faster than ever.
Phillips played in 16 regular-season and three postseason games in 2002 and did not make a stop on defense. Now he is asked to tackle the job left by the departure of Super Bowl XXXVII most valuable player Dexter Jackson.
"I was just thinking about it the other day, coming in, man, I was going to make an impression," Phillips said of his first minicamp. "I was just wondering, is the speed going to be different? Is it going to be faster? I was trying to figure out what to expect, I was just trying to prepare my mind and get mentally focused to come in here.
"I think it's a lot like when you first go to college. It's like, "Man, I'm going to a big university,' and you see the names and wonder what to expect. Then coming to the professional level, you think, "I'm going to the Bucs, I've got these future Hall of Famers, man, let's see how they work. What makes them so great? How do I compare right now to where they are now?' "
That's the question the six players selected in last weekend's draft and 13 college free agents will ask themselves when they join the veterans during five mandatory workouts scheduled during the next three days at One Buc Place.
The focus will be on Tampa Bay's top two draft choices - Louisville defensive end Dewayne White and Texas quarterback Chris Simms. And the Bucs are eager to get a glimpse at the three offensive linemen they selected on the second day.
The Bucs will have to adjust to Simms - the only left-hander among the four quarterbacks - as much as Simms will try to find a chemistry with his new offense.
"It's an adjustment for our offense," coach Jon Gruden said. "A lot of play-action passes, our nakeds, our bootlegs, plays of that nature, have for the most part been one way to accommodate a right-handed quarterback. Now it's double learning for the offensive line. It's backward formations, backward numbering for certain schemes that will be a challenge."
But a bigger challenge belongs to Phillips, the 6-foot-1, 214-pounder who backed up Jackson last season.
Phillips' biggest contribution came on special teams, where he was fifth on the team with 16 tackles and recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff against Minnesota. Those accomplishments pale in comparison to those of Smith, a nickel back who returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the Super Bowl.
But Phillips isn't switching positions or trying to make amends like Smith, who was arrested last month in Clearwater on a charge of aggravated assault with a firearm, a third-degree felony, after police say he brandished a gun at a motorist during a road-rage incident. "I like the challenge," Phillips said. "The coaching staff has to do what's best for the team. And if there's an opportunity for a corner to outplay us at the safety position and do a better job than me and Howell, that's what the defense deserves. It deserves only what's best. And if that's best, that's best. We're all out here competing, and the harder the competition, the better we all are.
"Even last year, when I was backing Dexter Jackson up, I was prepared as a starter. One play, if he's out, I'm in there and the defense doesn't expect to lose a beat. So I've always prepared like that. I was hoping (Jackson) would be here, but things happen and sometimes you've got to do what's best. I never followed it too closely, but Dexter told me a lot of times, there's a lot of great players in this league and the only thing they need is an opportunity."
For players like Phillips, that chance can come quickly.
"This year has just gone by so fast," Phillips said. "I was just thinking, man, I remember this first meeting, how long it was and how much information I had to retain. I wondered, man, is every day going to be like this? It's nice to look back and see how far I've come since then."