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Duo to duel at safety

Bucs draft Colorado State's John Howell and Yale's Than Merrill.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2001

TAMPA -- With starting free safety Damien Robinson an unsigned unrestricted free agent, the Bucs entered the draft needing insurance at the position.

They appear to have found it, taking Colorado State free safety John Howell in the fourth round (117th overall) and Yale strong safety Than Merrill in the seventh round (223rd).

"It's an opportunity to create competition," said Bucs new defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin, who replaced Herman Edwards. "Competition makes us all a lot better."

Excluding Robinson, who has yet to sign with the Bucs, Tampa Bay has Pro Bowl strong safety John Lynch, free safety Dexter Jackson and second-year player David Gibson.

Howell, who has a reputation of being an aggressive hitter and outstanding special teams player, may contribute immediately.

"It's the greatest feeling in the world," said Howell, who finished with 233 tackles in four seasons. "All this waiting, the nerves, it's been the toughest thing that I have been through, sitting here watching the TV. It's feels great to be a Tampa Bay Buc."

At 5 feet 11, 196 pounds, Howell ran a 4.58 40-yard dash and can play free and strong safety. He said he always has admired Bucs safety John Lynch and is eager to learn from him.

"His work ethic, blitzing abilities and all that," Howell said. "I hope to pattern myself after him and hopefully one day to be recognized as the type of player he is. It's too good to be true; this is what I wanted to happen and it happened. I'm just living a dream."

In some ways, Merrill, too, has lived a dream. Originally recruited by Stanford to play quarterback, Merrill moved to strong safety where he played one year. After the Cardinal had thoughts of moving him to linebacker, Merrill transferred to Yale.

"It's feels kind of good," Merrill said. "Not many guys come out of the Ivy League. So, it's kind of special coming from Yale. I don't know when was the last time we had someone drafted. It's probably been a few years, I can imagine. It's a special feeling."

Bucs coach Tony Dungy said Merrill is a bigger than average defensive back who likes to hit.

The native of Fresno, Calif., said he had no problem adapting to Ivy League lifestyle.

"It's definitely different," Merrill said. "There's a lot of tradition here. Like yesterday, George Bush Sr. was out here walking around with his Secret Service (entourage)."

Even if Robinson leaves, Merrill faces an uphill battle.

"He's going to be very, very competitive, very interesting," Dungy said. "He's probably bigger than any of the safeties that we have right now. I think he's going to come in and do a good job and surprise a few people."

As for the name Than?

"My mom actually gave me (the name) Nathaniel, but she felt I needed something a little tougher when I was a kid, so she shortened it to Than and thought it was a little unique," Merrill said.

"Nobody calls me (Nathaniel) except my mother, once in a while."

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