McKenzie has shot at Bucs' MLB job

TAMPA, Fla. -- With Barrett Ruud gone to Tennessee as a free agent, there’s a common assumption the Buccaneers will bring in a veteran free agent or place third-round draft pick Mason Foster at middle linebacker.

McKenzieMcKenzieBut there’s one long-shot possibility that has a chance at becoming a reality.

That’s Tyrone McKenzie, who joined Tampa Bay’s practice squad last year after asking the New England Patriots to release him. A third-round pick by New England in 2009, McKenzie suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament before he ever played a game for the Patriots. Heading into 2010, the Patriots weren’t sure about McKenzie’s health and they loaded up on linebackers. McKenzie went to coach Bill Belichick and asked for his release.

Signing with Tampa Bay was an easy choice. McKenzie went to high school in nearby Sarasota and played at the University of South Florida. The Bucs put him on the active roster late last season and appeared in three games.

But, through the first two days of training camp, McKenzie has been working with the first-team defense and calling the plays. Yeah, the Bucs could end up going with Foster, but McKenzie also was drafted in the third round and has had the luxury of being in NFL systems the past two seasons.

“Any defense is complex,’’ McKenzie said. “That’s why you need a good Mike (middle linebacker), a smart Mike that can make all the calls and checks and make sure everybody else is lined up right, too.’’

McKenzie has had his eye on a starting role the entire offseason. He went to Ruud’s home in Nebraska and the two worked out together and spent time breaking down Tampa Bay’s defense.

“That was huge,’’ McKenzie said. “Getting out there and talking football with him was great.’’

McKenzie also has a bit of a groundswell of support within the building. The coaches saw some things they liked last season and McKenzie became a natural fit in the locker room. When players were locked out, quarterback Josh Freeman took it upon himself to organize players-only workouts for the offense. Those were held at South Florida and McKenzie used his contacts there to help the Bucs get set up. Although only a handful of defensive players took part in those workouts, McKenzie was one of them.

When the Bucs held a full-team minicamp in Bradenton in June, Freeman turned to McKenzie for help in getting the defensive players there and setting up the practice routine for the defense.

We probably won’t know for some time exactly who will be Tampa Bay’s starting middle linebacker on opening day. But there’s a chance the Bucs already might have their defensive leader in their midst.

“If I have to stay at this until 2 in the morning to make sure I’m on top of my game and everybody else is on top of their game, I’ll do whatever it takes to win,’’ McKenzie said.