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Webster is rising in middle

Trash-talking linebacker making most of chance with Jamie Duncan sidelined.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 11, 2001


TAMPA -- Nate Webster is a hard-core football player with a philosophy that you don't back down, you never punk out.

photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
In his second season, Nate Webster has a better grasp of the defensive and the playbook, giving him a better chance to play more.
Just 23, he's a middle linebacker with a growing game and a mighty mouth. And while four-year veteran Jamie Duncan nurses his ailing left hamstring, Webster's the Bucs starter.

"There's no fear in my heart," said Webster, a 5-foot-10, 225-pounder many consider undersized for the position. "I'm just more comfortable with everything. I'm not as antsy in the pants as last year, being a rookie. I got a year up under my belt, so I'm ready for whatever."

"Whatever" came dressed in a Miami Dolphins uniform Friday and plans to stay for the weekend. And for Webster, who grew up in Miami and played for the Hurricanes, the stage couldn't be better.

In the first few drills of Friday's scrimmage, Webster wasted no time mixing it up with Dolphins running back Lamar Smith.

"I've got to hold back, I can't hurt my team," Webster said. "I can't get any foolish penalties. In between whistles, it's all good. But after the whistle blows, once the play's down, I've got to shut up and get back to the huddle."

Trash talk aside, while Duncan is out, all eyes are on Webster. This is his moment to shine, and he swears he's ready.

"Last year, I got my feet wet a little bit in some of the games," said Webster, who had 32 tackles. "I got a little taste of the action, got a chance to tackle some of the big-name backs. I just told myself this offseason that if I did that last year, I should be able to do the same thing this year and be even more aggressive, be even more into it mentally and physically."

After spending the bulk of his first season playing on special teams, Webster transferred his enthusiasm to offseason workouts. He virtually lived at One Buc Place. He approached the offseason as if he were on the edge of earning a starting job. And even though Duncan's play last year proved critical toward the season's end, Webster is conceding nothing.

Coach Tony Dungy has noticed.

"He has (elevated his game)," Dungy said. "He knows so much more about the defense this second year. He's had a chance to work all through the spring. He's got a confidence that's really good, and with Jamie being out, he's got a chance to work a lot with the first group, and he's doing well."

There's an adage in professional sports that a starter doesn't lose his job to injury. It isn't always true, and Dungy suggested that the more plays Webster gets with the first team in training camp, the more he will get when the season starts.

"It definitely helps," Dungy said. "The more you practice, the more you play, the better you get, and he's benefited because he has gotten that extra chance to play.

"We think Jamie will be back for the games, but the more Nate plays, along with anybody, the better he gets. We'll see how it goes. Jamie has played well for us and he was extremely productive for us last year. (Nate) can find the ball. He's a very instinctive guy. He's very quick to the ball and has the ability to slip blockers and just has a great feel for the game. I see them both playing quite a bit."

And when Webster is playing, the Dolphins can expect two things from him: He'll be mean and he'll be talkative.

"A lot of times I don't even know that I'm (talking)," Webster said. "Middle linebacker is a very important part of the defense. You've got be the quarterback on the defense and you're in charge of a lot. So I'm talking to myself during the process."

Although Dungy has never publicly chastised a player for trash-talking, he has stressed that the practice is a waste of energy and could serve as a source of inspiration for the opposing team.

Webster said his talkativeness is self-motivating.

"I'm just trying to stay up and into the game tempo-wise," he said. "Sometimes it might mess with the opposing team, might get inside the running back's head. He might drop it or he might be looking for me to come. It's like a double-edged sword. But I'm not going to talk if I'm not going to back it up. The only reason I'm going to talk is to back it up."

- Staff writer Darrell Fry contributed to this report.

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