Barrett Ruud watched players like Seattle's Lofa Tatupu and Oakland's Kirk Morrison taken later than him in the 2005 NFL Draft. Then Ruud watched as Tatupu and Morrison emerged as starters for their respective teams as he sat behind veteran Shelton Quarles.
A few spot starts for Quarles, a few plays here and there, didn't do much to sate his appetite. He wanted to play more, but out of respect for Quarles he never said much about it.
Ruud took solace — or at least tried to — in the belief that watching and learning would pay off.
"I hoped that I would look back at those years of sitting and see that they were good for me," Ruud said.
Two games into the 2007 season, Ruud appears to have been right.
Tampa Bay's new starting middle linebacker appears to have answered doubts about his ability to replace Quarles with two games reminiscent of the way the Quarles produced in the Cover 2.
That play reached a high point last Sunday against New Orleans, when Ruud notched a career-high 16 tackles and forced a first-quarter Deuce McAllister fumble in the 31-14 victory, earning the third-year pro NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
"These things come with team success," Ruud said. "If your team has a great defensive effort, usually someone will be recognized for it."
Ruud is a consistently low-key Lincoln, Neb. native, where football is a family tradition. He's the fifth member of the Ruud family to play football at the University of Nebraska, and the second to play pro football (his cousin is former Bucs safety John Howell). Ruud's father, Tom, even played for Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin when Kiffin worked under Tom Osborne.
If anything gets to him, he doesn't let on. Ruud spends most if his time practicing and watching film. He answers questions with the same, even Midwestern tone he has since his rookie season.
Bucs linebackers coach Gus Bradley said that demeanor extends to the meeting room and makes him a perfect match for the complicated Cover 2 scheme.
"(Shelton) displayed those qualities and Barrett played behind him — what — two years?" Bradley said. "I think Barrett picked up on that. But that's his nature. He never gets too high or too low. He's very businesslike on the field, very attentive to the details and takes a lot of pride in not having a bust on the field."
Ruud didn't admit to any concern about proving himself worthy of the starting job entering this season, and certainly won't cop to his first two weeks as a full-time starter as proof to naysayers that he has the chops for the position.
"I don't know. I hadn't really thought about it that much," Ruud said.
But he admits that, in hindsight, watching Tatupu and Morrison — the latter a Senior Bowl teammate — play so soon left him mildly disappointed.
"Those guys got a chance to play early and played well early," Ruud said. "That was the toughest thing for me, to see peers around the league that were doing well and saying, ‘Hey, I know that I can do those same types of things.'"
Instead, Ruud watched Quarles, the starter inside from 2002-06 and received a master's course in playing the Cover 2. The veteran held off Ruud for two years, though the youngster made five starts for Quarles due to injury in 2006. Ruud finished with 59 tackles. Quarles still had a fine season, finishing with more than 100 tackles for the fifth straight season.
But in the offseason the Bucs made the move, releasing Quarles after the vet failed a physical and promoting their second-round pick to the starting lineup.
Ruud's ability to handle the position full-time was unknown. Scout.com senior NFL analyst Tom Marino scouted Ruud his final season at Nebraska and said he came away thoroughly impressed.
"He was so efficient," Marino said. "He was a top run-stuffer. He was so smart. The Rams (the team Marino worked for at the time) liked him very much, and I thought he would be a great fit for a Cover 2 because of how smart he was."
Ruud admitted to being more relaxed this training camp. Without Quarles, Ruud said, he could play more aggressively and make a few more mistakes since he wasn't playing just a few plays at a time.
And his play in preseason suggested that he was up to the task as a run-stopper, along with the tough task of running the entire defense.
"We saw him grow into that position," Bradley said. "They leadership he showed during training camp, we just had high expectations for him."
But questions still lingered, and a season-ending injury to Antoine Cash sapped valuable depth, so the Bucs signed veteran Pro Bowler Jeremiah Trotter as insurance.
Ruud didn't take it personally, saying he knew if he didn't perform he'd be replaced anyway. In fact, Trotter took Quarles' place as his mentor of sorts.
"He's been there, he's done that," Ruud said. "I always ask him as many questions as I can."
Ruud's studious approach paid off against the Saints. Ruud fended off Saints center Jeff Faine to get his right hand on the football. Ruud then stripped the ball away. It was an instinctive, aggressive play Ruud might not have made a year ago as Quarles' backup.
He didn't take those chances last year, as he held down the fort for the guy with the job.
"You can play a little bit more aggressive (when it's your job) and a little more recklessly, I guess, and that's where turnovers happen," Ruud said.
The third-year pro's development is key to this defense, Marino said, because of how valued middle linebackers are in the NFL.
"There's a premium on that position," Marino said. "Like there's a premium on defensive ends. But they usually come out in the nickel (formations)."
But to be a great NFL middle linebacker, says Fox NFL analyst Brian Baldinger, "you have to make plays in the passing game."
Great middle linebackers don't leave the game in nickel packages, Marino said. Ruud hasn't broken up a pass yet, but he hasn't left the game in nickel situations yet either. It's only a matter of time, Bradley believes, before Ruud makes an impact there, too.
"Barrett is extremely sharp, and that's half the battle in the passing game," Bradley said. "Trying to understand what teams are trying to do to you, how they're trying to expose you. They'll put you in run-pass binds and (you have) to be able to react out of that. I think the reactions that he has in the run also carries over to the pass. He's worked on that, and so far, so good."
And once Ruud's pass coverage skills catch up to his run-stopping abilities, the Bucs may have a player as good, if not better, than Quarles on their hands.
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. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.