Linebacker Ian Gold turns an already fast Bucs defense into a lightning quick one, and he excels because of it.
LAKE BUENA VISTA - It's hard to imagine the Bucs linebacking corps, already known more for its speed than its thump, could get any faster.
But when the Bucs signed Ian Gold in late April, it did just that.
What once was a really quick group by NFL standards became three legs of an Olympic sprint relay team.
And in the Bucs' one-gap defensive scheme, that kind of speed matters most.
"The guy can run like the wind," cornerback Brian Kelly said. "He just has a good attitude for us over there. He's fresh. It's new to him right now, so he's all juiced up and ready to go, and it's going to carry over to a lot of guys on (the defensive) side of the ball, hopefully for the whole team."
Through the first week of camp Gold's impact has been obvious. He is always around the ball. He is seldom beaten on a play. He has made some resounding hits and caused fumbles that have sent the defensive unit into a frenzy and left members of the offense looking around for him.
"I'm just glad he's on our team, man," coach Jon Gruden said. "A year and a half ago, he had 130 (solo) tackles in his first year as a starter in the NFL. And if you look at the back of a lot of guys' football cards, there's not a lot of linebackers who can say they've done that."
Gold, who likely will start on the strong side in place of Ryan Nece, isn't upstaging Derrick Brooks or Shelton Quarles, but he is making it clear he belongs in their class.
"It's a matter of getting the timing down," Gold said. "Football is a game of timing. Yes, it's mental, and I have to get the plays down and things like that, but for me it's about getting my timing down. Whether it's my first step or my last step, I've got to get that down."
A second-round pick out of Michigan in 2000, Gold spent his first four seasons in Denver closing in on ball carriers and racking up impressive numbers. In 2002, his first season as a starter, Gold played 16 games and finished with a career-high 166 tackles, with 61/2 sacks.
But six games into 2003 Gold tore his right ACL, had surgery and missed the rest of the season. The Broncos let him test the market, and on the weekend of the draft the Bucs brought Gold into the fold, banking that the knee would be right before opening day.
As insurance the Bucs signed Gold to a unique seven-year, $38-million contract, with the only guaranteed money coming in the form of a $1.4-million signing bonus. He will get a $9.6-million roster bonus next year if the Bucs decide to keep him.
Though he is being held to one practice a day, Gold's knee seems just fine.
"It's still smooth," he said. "But to say I'm not thinking about my knee out there, I'd be lying. It's something I've got to get over. It's a hump I have to deal with, but I have to look forward to another challenge. It's been a crazy 10 months.
"I am not where I want to be, but I am near where I want to be. I am my own worst critic. As the training camp progresses, I feel myself become more confident and my leg getting a lot stronger. That is what I was hoping for, and that is what's happening."
Linebackers coach Joe Barry, giddy with the depth and speed he has, said Gold is showing no signs of hesitance.
"I don't see it at all. He wouldn't be out here if he wasn't 100 percent," Barry said. "There's no doubt in my mind that his knee was 100 percent. Is he still going to have a little rust on him? Yes. He hasn't played football since October last year.
"But the kid is incredibly intense. There are a lot of guys who are intense, but to play linebacker you have to have instincts. Now, when you combine intensity and instincts, you've got one lethal weapon out there."
Gold's smooth transition into the Bucs system is not that surprising because the Broncos, who also had a similar corps of speedy linebackers, used the Bucs scheme.
"When I was with Denver we modeled our whole defense on (defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2," Gold said. "So when I wound up here in Tampa at the end of the free-agent period, I was happy. And I'm still happy today, so that's a good sign."
And there's something else the Bucs find energizing in Gold: age. He turns 26 Aug. 23.
"He's young," Gruden said. "Y-O-U-N-G. Young and hungry, with impact playmaking skills."
If the plan is for Gold to become a crucial part of the future and possibly one day replace Brooks at the weakside, it's in the team's best interest to patiently see how he fits.
"The No. 1 thing is practice, he needs grass time," Barry said. "He's got to be on the field as much as possible. But I think we're going to be smart with him, to start off."
Gold is comfortable with the pace.
"I don't feel any pressure," he said. "I am just playing football and having fun. This is what I do for a living. I am competing in the best game on the face of the Earth for a living, and I can't ask for anything better than that."