TAMPA — Linebacker Adam Hayward called it a final exam.
For many of the younger players on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that's exactly what Sunday's game against Carolina amounts to.
With many of the well-heeled veterans expected to sit out most of the game — if they play at all — players like Hayward, linebacker Quincy Black, safety Kalvin Pearson and wide receiver Micheal Spurlock know they can seize a chance to impress the coaching staff and audition for a larger role on next year's team.
Hayward admitted he learned a big lesson about being ready to play after last week's loss to San Francisco. He expected to play some in place of weak side linebacker Derrick Brooks. He just didn't know how much until Brooks left the game at halftime.
"I think I could have done a lot better, but there's only so much you can say as a rookie; there's only so much leeway you can give yourself," Hayward said, who had two tackles in the game. "If I were to do it again, I would definitely study more than I did before, thinks like schemes and tendencies."
For many of these young players, last Sunday was their first meaningful playing time since preseason. Hayward admitted he felt the rust.
"Some of the stuff we did I haven't run in a long time, so I had to jog the memory," Hayward said. "It was different. It was a fun experience."
Hayward said he and the other younger players didn't see increased practice reps last week and had to do more game study on their own.
Hayward appears more excited this week. He knows he'll likely see a great deal of playing time, knowing how vital Brooks is to the defense. In a sense, Hayward has to treat Sunday as if he's a full-time starter and prepare as such.
He knows defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will expect nothing less.
"Coach Kiff doesn't want you going in there thinking you're a rookie," Hayward said. "He wants you thinking you're a starter and be ready. It's more pressure but if you study you'll be OK."
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.