Sometimes the pleasant surprise in training camp becomes the pleasant surprise during the regular season.
Just look at Jovan Haye.
A year ago this week the Buccaneers signed the Jamaican-born Vanderbilt product from Cleveland's practice squad. The Buccaneers, after trading Anthony McFarland to Indianapolis, were in need of depth at under tackle. They saw the 6-foot-2, 285-pound Haye as an option. They scouted him in 2005, when the Carolina Panthers took him in the fifth round. They kept Haye on their "Hot List" of prospects.
Now the Buccaneers' tracking of Haye seems prescient. The third-year pro, though undersized for the position, has thrived inside, leading the Bucs defensive linemen in tackles (39) and the entire defense in sacks (4) through seven games.
As the Buccaneers reach the midpoint of the season this Sunday against Jacksonville, Haye is feeling the impact of being a starter for the first time in the NFL.
"It's a long season," Haye said. "I'm fighting my body right now. I've never played this much in my life."
Haye takes a shot every Sunday before the game, a shot to numb the aches and pains of the season thus far. By Monday night, the shot wears off and the pain returns.
It's a by-product of Haye's new life taking on guards and centers inside, as opposed to tackles outside.
"I get beat up more," Haye said. "Those double teams are hard. It used to be 300-pound guys. Now it's like 600 pounds on top of me."
During training camp Haye's play earned him an early spot at the top of the depth chart, despite the fact that he'd been a career defensive end. The Bucs moved him to that position immediately upon his arrival in Tampa Bay.
"He's worked really hard," Bucs defensive line coach Larry Coyer said. "He's been pretty consistent. He has the quickness and the heart and desire (to play that position). He has all of those things. I don't see him wearing down. I don't see it in practice and I don't see it on the field."
Haye's skills fit what the Bucs sought at the position — a quick tackle who could help on run defense but, more importantly, get to the passer, similar to the role of former Pro Bowl tackle Warren Sapp. When the Bucs signed him away from Cleveland, they immediately told him he would be a tackle.
So Haye's skills as an end, he discovered, became an asset.
"When I played defensive end I loved using my hands to shed blocks," Haye said. "I realized, ‘Wow, it's can be effective down there, too, staying on blocks and using my hands to shed blocks.' It helped a lot."
Despite trading for Ryan Sims and signing Kevin Carter in the offseason — both veterans with experience inside — Haye held onto the job. And, after a slow start, his play is becoming harder to ignore.
Haye's tackles went up every week for three straight weeks, cresting against Tennessee two weeks ago when he notched 11 solo tackles against the run-heavy Titans. He also sacked backup quarterback Kerry Collins in that game, a key sack that helped take the Titans out of field goal range.
He sacked Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna last week, forcing the Lions to kick a first-half field goal. That gave him sacks in back-to-back games for the first time in his career.
Coyer said last week that he needed one or two of his defensive linemen to step up. Haye is emerging as an early candidate to answer that call.
"We need more guys like him," Coyer said. "That's what defense is about — playmakers. He's made some plays. We do (need some guys) to step up and make some plays and he's capable. He has a feel for making plays."
Haye is quick to point out that the veterans on the defensive line are helping him along. Both Carter and Sims are quick to give advice. Hovan is opening paths for Haye on the field by accepting plenty of double teams, though Coyer said the double-teams are beginning to even out.
"Hovan has helped me out so much, I don't think people realize that," Haye said. "Holding up double teams and forcing things like he does. It's not me."
But he directly benefits more than any other player on the line.
And his production is making the Buccaneers look smart for keeping track of him.
"When I was in Cleveland I was a practice squad guy and I came here and I felt I had a true opportunity, so I made the best of it," Haye said. "I'm not having a successful season by myself."
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 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.