Shelton Quarles showed up at Buccaneers training camp on Sunday in a golf shirt and shorts. Head coach Jon Gruden extended him the invitation.
Quarles made sure he said hello to his replacement.
After spending two seasons learning from and studying Quarles’ every move, Barrett Ruud moved into the starting middle linebacker spot when the Buccaneers released Quarles in April.
Last year the first thing that came to Ruud’s mind when he enter the game to spell Quarles was, “Don’t screw anything up.”
Now, he’s more relaxed. The job is his.
“You’re going to make mistakes,” Ruud said. “But you’re not going to look over your shoulder when you’re going back out (on the field). It’s go out and make plays and don’t worry about the consequences.
“(Last year) Shelton would come out a lot and I’d come in for two or three plays and I’d be looking over at the sideline (waiting for him to come back).”
Quarles isn’t coming back — unless he needs to ask Ruud to be his golf partner. He accepted a job in the Bucs front office earlier this week, all but announcing his retirement from football.
Ruud started five games last season, including the opener against Baltimore, as Quarles battled lower body issues all season. He showed glimpses of the player the Bucs believed he would be when they selected him in the second round of the 2005 Draft. He finished the season with 59 tackles, plus 12 special teams tackles. He was solid, but he made no big plays of note.
The Lincoln, Neb., native has spent a good portion of his offseason breaking down his own film, seeking to correct the little things that will allow him to be as productive as Quarles, whose example on and off the field was one everyone followed, Ruud said.
“To me the best linebackers, they fly in and they get the ball out when they need it, or when they get the chance to make a break and get a pick they do it,” Ruud said. “There’s a couple of times that it irks at me that I slipped on a break and maybe had a chance to tip a ball and catch, or a couple of times when I saw the ball just sitting there and I went for the tackle, instead of the strip.”
He’s already proving that he learned something. During practice on Tuesday, Ruud stripped the ball away from running back Cadillac Williams.
Quarles failed a team physical in April, leading to his release. Ruud’s presence took some of the sting out of the decision.
“He stepped up last year when Quarles was out,” head coach Jon Gruden said. “He’s a good middle linebacker with a chance to become outstanding. We’ve got to play great around him, too. The other linebackers have got to play great. Upfront, we’ve got to play great. Our safety people and our corners we’ve all got to step up.
“But Barrett Ruud is going to be a leader here, and he is asserting himself right now.”
There was no denying Quarles’ contribution to the Buccaneers through 10 seasons.
Quarles averaged 152.8 tackles in his final five seasons with the team, including 136 last season, despite all his physical problems. He nabbed his only Pro Bowl nod in 2002, as the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII.
Ruud said he learned plenty about football from playing behind Quarles for two years. Quarles’ influence on Ruud extends beyond the football field.
“A lot of guys don’t know what it’s like (to live in the NFL),” Ruud said. “Shelton really was a model of how you want to do that — community, balancing your time and still finding time to have some fun, but knowing your priorities.”
One of Quarles’ finest assets was his communication skills. He was able to communicate formation changes and adjustments to his teammates. It’s a key component to playing middle linebacker, but perhaps more so in the Cover 2, a defense based on speed and position rather than power.
Keeping his teammates in line is now Ruud’s full time job.
“In college you always made the strength calls, but that was about it,” Ruud said. “Then you went and played. Here you’re non-stop talking from the huddle until the ball is snapped. That’s different. Guys (coming out of college) aren’t used to that. It’s crazy when you break the huddle, keep talking until the ball is snapped and then have to remember what to do.
“Hopefully it doesn’t look like that, but there have been times I’ve forgotten what to do.”
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.