The Bucs haven't said it but the second-year pro likely will be the strongside linebacker ahead of Dwayne Rudd.
By ROGER MILLS
Published September 2, 2003
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Nece had four tackles Aug. 23 vs. Jacksonville.
TAMPA - The Bucs defense always has held firm to the premise that if you make plays, if you show up on film, if you raise your game to a point that the coaching staff can't ignore you, then you're going to start.
That philosophy saw Brian Kelly replace then-Pro Bowl cornerback Donnie Abraham two seasons ago.
That philosophy appears to have moved second-year player Ryan Nece, son of Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, ahead of free-agent acquisition Dwayne Rudd as the starting strongside linebacker.
Though the Bucs have not announced it, all signs point to Nece starting against the Eagles Monday night in Philadelphia.
"I think we officially announce as a coaching staff a starting lineup and we haven't done that yet," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "But (Sunday and Monday) Ryan Nece took all the reps with the first-team defense."
Nece, 24, an undrafted free agent who made the team last year based on his potential and special-teams play, said he is unsure whether he will start but feels ready if he does.
"Definitely, there's a possibility of anything," Nece said. "We'll just let the coaches do what they may and when it comes to it, we'll make that adjustment. ... I just go out there and play. I'm going with the ones and twos and we just go back and forth. When it comes closer to game time, we'll see what happens."
Rudd, 27, declined comment but said he would address the matter when the team makes a formal announcement Wednesday.
That announcement will cap a remarkable journey for Nece.
A standout linebacker at UCLA, Nece spent much of his college career trying to avoid comparisons to his accomplished father. Born in San Bernardino, Calif., Nece originally was a safety and cornerback but was switched to linebacker when he arrived at UCLA.
He played all four years with the Bruins and started every game in his junior and senior seasons (23 games), finishing his college career with 281 tackles and 10 sacks. But against Arizona State, in the final game of his senior season, Nece broke his left fibula on the first play of the game and played all the way to the third quarter. So Nece, an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection and semifinalist for the Dick Butkus Award, went undrafted. In April 2002, the Bucs signed him as a rookie free agent and he immediately began to show signs that be belonged in the NFL.
"The kid came in and did an unbelievable job a year ago," Barry said.
Nece, 6 feet 3, 224 pounds, was a critical part of special teams the first eight games last season before he tore his left ACL Oct. 27 at Carolina. He missed the rest of the season.
"It was extremely tough," Nece said. "Any time you're sitting on the sideline, I don't care what sport you're playing, you don't like to be there. You want to be on the field because you're a competitor.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't and I had to sit there. That allowed me to develop a hunger to be on the field and play with this defense."
When the Bucs lost strongside starter Al Singleton to Dallas in the offseason, the team turned to the free-agent market and signed Rudd to a two-year, $1.5-million deal.
Rudd, a 6-2, 235-pound former first-round pick of the Vikings in 1997 now entering his seventh season in the league (the past two with Cleveland), was moved into the starting lineup. Nece, still rehabbing his knee, was his backup.
Rudd remained the starter through the offseason, training camp and preseason games and even saw extra time in that period to get acclimated to the new system.
"I want everybody to realize that it wasn't anything Dwayne Rudd did or did not do," Barry said. "Dwayne Rudd has been unbelievable from Day 1 to right now. The strides that he's made in learning our defense and really buying into the way we do things have been unbelievable. I want everybody to realize, it's more what Ryan Nece did."
Nece continued to practice well, then in the preseason he exploded. He had 32 tackles, one sack and one interception in five games.
"Just watch the tape, watch the five preseason games that we played," Barry said. "Ryan Nece had an unbelievable preseason, not only in one game, but in all five games."
Nece said his instincts, teammates, coaches and good fortune each played a role in his ascension.
"When the ball bounces your way you've got to seize the moment and make opportunities when you can," he said. "I've done that and I've just got to continue to do that and continue to improve and get better.
"I'm a long ways from where I want to be. I've got great guys to learn from in Derrick (Brooks), Shelton (Quarles), Nate (Webster) and Dwayne. Those guys have been in the game for a long time, so I'll just continue to gain knowledge from them and get better."
Worried about how the team would perceive him after the injury, Nece said he also benefited from some important fatherly advice.
"He said, "At this point, you've just got to wash your mind clean. Clear your mind of anything you think the coaches are thinking or other players are thinking because it's going to be a distraction to you,' " Nece said Lott told him. "So, at this camp, I really tried to just concentrate on myself, go out there and do the things I know I was capable of doing and not worry about what the coaches thought."