It had been about 10 minutes since Jovan Haye began talking to the media on a balmy Sunday morning in Orlando. Haye wasn't used to the onslaught of TV cameras and tape recorders. When you've spent the past two seasons just trying to make a roster somewhere, no one wants to talk to you.
But that all changes when you become an under tackle in the Cover 2 defense in Tampa Bay.
Now everybody wants a minute of Haye's time, the man who, for the moment, appears on track to be the opening day starter at perhaps Tampa Bay's most important defensive position.
So this is what it's like at the front of the line, someone asked?
"I don't know," Haye said, readily admitting he'd never been there before and wouldn't know. "There's a lot of guys here now, but hopefully I'll be there (in the end)."
Haye's presence in Tampa Bay in his third NFL season isn't necessarily dumb luck. The Buccaneers have had their eye on the Vanderbilt product since 2005, when Carolina picked him in the sixth round. The Buccaneers were prepared to take him, but the Panthers pounced first.
Tampa Bay never forgot about him (to find out how the Buccaneers keep track of "hot list" prospects like Haye, read Buccaneers beat writer Matthew Postins' Q&A with Bucs director of pro personnel Mark Dominik.) After Tampa Bay traded Anthony McFarland to Indianapolis last October, they were in need of a defensive tackle. Haye, unemployed after Cleveland cut him, signed with Tampa Bay on Oct. 25.
Haye's rise has been swift. The 6-foot-2, 285-pound tackle has gone from third-string tackle last season to first-string in training camp in just eight months, and at a position that former Buccaneers defensive line coach Rod Marinelli called the "trigger" for the Cover 2.
"It starts up front," Haye said. "For years, watching Tampa and hearing about Tampa, they say it started at the three technique. So I guess I'm believing what everyone else is saying — it's the trigger."
The position is a blend of run stuffing and pass rushing. Whoever plays the position must be adept at plugging the hole between the center and right guard, while at the same time strong enough and quick enough to put together a pass rush. It's a demanding position and one that can cause chaos against opposing offenses when played properly. It really hasn't been played at a Pro Bowl level since the departure of Warren Sapp after the 2003 season.
Sapp's place in the organization, nearly four years after he left, is unquestioned. He left Tampa Bay as its second-leading sacker, with 77 (just 1 ½ behind Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, an end). He also had the girth to stuff running lanes. Anthony McFarland, Ellis Wyms and Jon Bradley? None of them were able to blend the two traits together.
Haye, despite being a bit undersized for the role, certainly isn't at Sapp's level. He admits he's still learning, that there are parts of the position that still feel elusive to him. But he's impressed line coach Larry Coyer with his base skills and his improving understanding of the position. He's not as far away from being the player needed at the three-technique as his lack of experience might suggest.
"That's what we're looking for right now," Coyer said. "For him to defend the same way (he did last year), step up his pass rush, which is improving, and when that happens we've got ourselves a football player."
Haye deflects any possible comparisons to Sapp.
"Sapp was a great player, and I'm not trying to be that," Haye said. "There will never be another Sapp. I'm just trying to be me."
Haye played in nine games last season, his first real pro action (he played in two games in Carolina in 2005, but didn't record a statistic). He played primarily against the run, making 25 tackles. He never started, but it was obvious that as his understanding of the scheme improved, so did his playing time.
Haye took advantage of the opportunity to learn from veterans like Ellis Wyms — who he would replace as the starter, should he win the job — and coaches like Monte Kiffin, and now Coyer. He watched tape of Sapp and McFarland. He asked questions of players like veteran Kevin Carter, who played a similar position in a similar scheme in Tennessee.
Gradually, Haye said, the game has slowed down for him. Carter has noticed.
"He's scrappy," Carter said. "I like his spirit. He's strong, he's tough and he's young. He's got a great spirit and the only thing he may lack is a little bit of technique here and there. I'm really excited for him to have an opportunity to get in there and play because he's talented and he's a guy that could possibly really get good at that position over time."
Haye said it was difficult to get the hard times of the past out of his head, even as his position in Tampa Bay has improved. He was on a yo-yo in Carolina. Cleveland held on to him for nine days. The goal for a player in Haye's position is to get a job, and he never doubted he could play.
But it took a while for Haye to come to terms with the fact that a NFL team actually wanted him for longer than what seemed like a cup of coffee.
"Last year I came in here and I was just another guy and I was trying to get comfortable," Haye said. "Come OTAs, I was like, ‘You know what? I'm a Tampa Bay Buccaneer right now,' So I might as well just act like one.
"You have to realize that if you believe in yourself, you won't be in this position again (getting cut). I'm not going to put myself in this position again. I'm not going to give it to them. They can take it from me, but I'm not going to give it to them again."
So each day during training camp Haye seems to make one play that makes him stand out. For instance, last week Haye penetrated that three gap and stuffed running back Cadillac Williams. Coyer yelled approvingly.
For the third-year pro, it finally seems to be coming together. Once Haye is able to harness that blend of speed and balance, the traits Coyer believes can make Haye a good pass rusher, he may well be that "triggerman" the Bucs need.
But on this day, Haye was just happy to be in the spotlight for a few minutes. After he answered everyone's questions, he extended his hand. Yes, his hand, and shook the hand of every writer and cameraman surrounding him.
"I've seen my ups and downs, thinking I'm going to make the team and then get cut," Haye said. "I'm just enjoying every bit of this."
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors.