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Rookie may start, ready or not

Injury might force Nate Webster in at LB; Bucs say he'll do the job.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 2000


TAMPA -- A rookie is pressed into service because of injury and forced to start Monday night against a talented Minnesota Vikings team.

The passage describes how Shaun King's NFL career began, and Monday it very well may describe how the career of Bucs linebacker Nate Webster starts.

Starting middle linebacker Jamie Duncan suffered a concussion and neck strain against Washington on Sunday. Bucs coach Tony Dungy said it's quite possible Webster, the third-round pick out of Miami, will have to step into the void. Both Dungy and Duncan said they will see how the week goes before determining his game status, but Duncan still sounded a little fuzzy Monday.

"It's kind of a wait and see right now," Duncan said. "I'm pretty much out. I may play depending on how the week goes and how I feel."

Backups always are one play from starting, but this transition would be daunting. Tampa Bay will have gone from 12-year veteran Hardy Nickerson, who went to Jacksonville via free agency, to three-year veteran Duncan to young Webster.

Despite playing seven snaps, the challenge of facing the Vikings and running back Robert Smith is one Webster believes he's ready to handle.

"There ain't no fear in my heart," Webster said Monday. "He's a great back. I remember seeing him and (Stephen) Davis when I was in college and seeing what type of running backs they are. Good running backs.

"But like I said, they ain't going to put no fear in my heart. I love to play, I like to hit and this defense has a certain image to live up to and I'm going to do whatever it takes to uphold that image."

Webster has one advantage. He already has seen action, having played in the heat of the game against the Redskins. Duncan went out late, first with a stinger and then with a concussion, and from all accounts Webster handled himself well. It helped to have the pressure from and support of veteran teammates such as linebacker Derrick Brooks, safety John Lynch and defensive tackle Warren Sapp, Webster's fellow Miami alum.

"I know a lot of the stuff, but me and (Sapp) were just talking to make sure we were on the same page, just like any other defense," Webster said. "You can never get enough communication talking on the field. He let me know, "I got your back, just play ball.' He didn't want me to be all tense and nervous. He just wanted me to play ball.

"I'm planning on making the best of my opportunity and not let the veteran guys down. I don't want to hear their mouths, Warren and Brooks and Lynch."

Bucs linebackers coach Lovie Smith has been impressed with the way the veterans have taken Webster under their collective wing, but Webster isn't relying solely on his teammates to learn the game. Smith said Webster's study habits have been as impressive as his play.

"He's the last guy to leave practice each day," Smith said. "When you're the second Mike (backup middle linebacker), you don't get a lot of reps, so we've been getting Nate key work after practice, just to keep him sharp on that stuff.

"He's a good football player. He studies. He's got Hardy Nickerson-type qualities, studying off the field. Once we know that he is going to be the man, we're just going to have to get him a lot more reps in practice. That's going to help a lot."

Webster said his attention to film study is a carryover from his days with the Hurricanes. He constantly was trying to learn as much as he could about every opponent so there would be no surprises. Webster often came in early to get a head start.

"I don't have school now, so I can spend a lot more of my time on it," Webster said. "I just believe I was born to play football. I was blessed with this ability and I just love it."

The extra work resulted in the 5-foot-11, 225-pounder being named all-Big East for consecutive seasons. Last year, as a junior, Webster recorded 150 tackles in 12 games. The total included 14 tackles for loss.

A nose for the ball and blinding speed are Webster specialties and should serve him well if he's called upon to fill in for Duncan. Smith readily admits the Bucs are putting him in a tough situation and didn't envision a starting role for Webster this season.

They may not have a choice.

"Sometimes when you put players in tough situations you find out a lot about them, and Nate has given us signs he's going to be a real good player in the league," Smith said. "What better avenue to see exactly what he has than now. It's something we have to do, but we're excited about the chance. I'm excited for him to get the opportunity to do it."



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