Bucs experience Ruud awakening at linebacker

Given the college environment, it's still mostly a Saturday crowd that frequents the sports bars in Lincoln, Neb., during football season. During the past month, however, several owners have had to order a few extra kegs to cope with the sudden but welcomed increase in Sunday afternoon clientele.

Blame the surge in suds on Tampa Bay Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud (pronounced "Rude"), a former Cornhuskers standout who, in his third NFL season, not only has won a starting job but is playing well enough to perhaps earn a Pro Bowl invitation.

Oh, and who is drawing crowds to the Lincoln venues that are lucky enough to have access to the Bucs' games.

For the first two seasons of Ruud's professional career, his college buddies would monitor the Tampa Bay games on the Internet. And then, when he entered the contest, they'd scurry to find a place with a satellite dish in Lincoln, where the only time Tampa Bay appears on over-the-air television is if the Bucs are playing a Midwestern franchise.

"The problem was," Ruud said earlier this week, "by the time they finally located a place that had the game, I was back on the bench. So they'd get there, sit down, and it would be time to go back home. I mean, I was mostly just playing on the special teams units."

But that has changed in 2007, with Ruud's anchoring a Bucs' defensive unit that is once again playing at a special level, and which has keyed the resurgence of a team for whom pundits had only tepid, at best, playoff expectations.

The 2005 NFL draft, in which Ruud was a second-round pick and the 36th prospect selected overall, included three outstanding inside linebackers. Seattle's Lofa Tatupu (second round) and Oakland's Kirk Morrison (third round) started as rookies and were immediate standouts on their respective defenses. Tatupu, in fact, helped lead the Seahawks to a berth in Super Bowl XL and has played in the Pro Bowl each of his first two seasons. Morrison isn't as well known, in part because the Raiders haven't been winning, but most scouts regard him as a Pro Bowl-caliber defender, too.

Ruud, though, was buried behind the solid but underrated Shelton Quarles on the Tampa Bay depth chart and started just five games in his first two seasons. Not until Quarles retired this spring because of injuries (he's now a Bucs scout) was Ruud elevated to the starting lineup.

Now he's elevated the play of a Bucs' defense that slumped to a No. 17 statistical rating in 2006, the lowest ever under venerable coordinator Monte Kiffin.

"He really is exceptional," Carolina quarterback David Carr said after the Bucs limited the Panthers to 236 yards in last week's victory at Charlotte, a game in which Ruud registered seven tackles and a forced fumble. "He's real active, kind of in the mold of what you expect from a Tampa Bay linebacker. You know, quick to the ball, plays both the run and the pass real well. To tell you the truth, I didn't know much about him. But I do now."

Indeed, in what has been a Ruud Awakening for the rest of the league, the Bucs middle linebacker has been an eye-opening revelation to Tampa Bay opponents.

Through four games, Ruud has an impressive stat line: 51 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one interception and two passes defensed, according to the video review of the Tampa Bay coaches. Because tackles are not an official statistic, the league numbers vary, but STATS Inc. lists him as the NFC's leading tackler and tied for the league lead with the Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson.

Not bad for a guy who, during a five-game stretch in which he replaced an injured Quarles as the starter in 2006, likened himself to a "substitute teacher."

There is, of course, a proud tradition of linebacker play in Tampa Bay, where standouts such as Hardy Nickerson and Quarles were once fixtures and where weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks, still going strong in his 13th season, has fashioned a brilliant career that eventually will earn him Hall of Fame membership. And this summer the Bucs signed four-time Pro Bowl middle 'backer Jeremiah Trotter after the Philadelphia Eagles released him.

"You feel a responsibility to live up to that [tradition]," Ruud said. "That's why I used the 'substitute teacher' line last year. I was just in there trying to maintain some kind of order, to hold things together until [Quarles] got back. You don't want anything to go bad on your watch, when you're in charge. But those guys have been the real glue around here. And they've been great to me, believe me."

Beyond just football wisdom, what the 24-year-old Ruud has learned from some of those elder-statesmen LBs is an unwavering work ethic. Brooks is well known for dressing out in full pads even on the days when injuries prelude him from practicing or when Kiffin and head coach Jon Gruden give him a day off.

Said Ruud: "They hate to take a play off, let alone a practice. I remember my rookie year, we're in camp in Orlando and it's like 150 degrees, like it always is there, and Derrick is out there fighting with coaches because he wants more snaps. That stuff makes an impression. It sticks with you and you want to be a part of that tradition."

Even before he arrived in the NFL, Ruud was a part of a pretty good football tradition, as well as some impressive bloodlines. His great-grandfather played for the Cornhuskers. His father and two uncles also played there -- and a younger brother is on the current Nebraska squad.

Tom Ruud, his father, played for Kiffin when the Bucs' coordinator held the same position on the Cornhuskers' staff in the early 1970s. And so Barrett, who grew up a Bucs fan because of the family's ties to Kiffin, already knew what to expect when he reported for duty as a callow rookie. At the same time, Kiffin knew what he was getting, too, when he lobbied for the Bucs to select Ruud in the 2005 draft.

"I knew he'd be a worker, because that's in the blood," Kiffin said. "He had the physical skills, but he was smart, too, and that's big in this [defense]."

Although Brooks still makes some of the calls, Ruud for the most part sets the defenses for a scheme that is still basically a Tampa 2 model but which has undergone some alterations in the past year. The Bucs have added a little bit of a 3-4 package from time to time, and there has been some tinkering with the coverage package as well. It is not the same, generic Cover 2 scheme that Kiffin and former coach Tony Dungy incorporated years ago.

One element that hasn't changed, though, is that the middle linebacker must be able to cover, to run down the center of the field, sometimes 20 yards, in a zone that is deeper than most "Mike" linebackers can handle. Then again, in other defenses, middle linebackers typically come off the field on third down. But not in Tampa, and not Ruud, who has adjusted his thought process when the ball is snapped on passing downs.

"It goes a little against your nature, because for a linebacker, you always want your first step to be moving forward," Ruud said. "But here, the first priority is playing pass. So the initial step is actually in reverse. I was talking to [Trotter] the other day and he said, 'Man this is the exact opposite of anything I've ever been trained to do.' And it is. But it's the way this defense is played and it's something you have to become accustomed to."

At Nebraska, Ruud was exposed to some Tampa 2 principles when Bo Pelini, a former NFL assistant who is now the defensive coordinator at LSU, ran the defense there. And that brief experience served him well. But Ruud also served his NFL apprenticeship well, soaking up knowledge from Kiffin and veteran players, taking copious notes during the defensive meetings, poring over video.

Now, as the starter, he's been able to transfer that knowledge to the field.

"It really is a relaxing time for me," Ruud said. "To play linebacker, you've got to have a sort of recklessness about you, by nature. But in this defense, you have to be patient and be smart, and I think I'm getting that. I think I'm finding myself."

He's also easier to find back in Lincoln. Just look for the large crowds on Sunday afternoons.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.