Geno Hayes is 22 years old and would be a senior at Florida State. But the second-year pro already is developing nicely into an impact linebacker for the Bucs.
Last week at Seattle, Hayes performed like a player well beyond his years. Battling a hamstring injury, he was all over the field in the Bucs' 24-7 win over the Seahawks. Hayes recorded a sack and an interception, recovered a fumble and had four tackles for a loss -- a rare accomplishment in the NFL by filling nearly every big-play category on the stat sheet.
"I really can't explain being in the zone," Hayes said. "I think it's just me hustling. The ball pops up in the air and I'm around the ball. Just whenever you hustle, plays happen like that."
Coach Raheem Morris loves what he has seen from Hayes but says he still has more growing to do.
"You look at him and he's kind of got a nonchalant little attitude," Morris said. "You look at him and say, 'Burst, Geno.' He's say, 'Ah, I'm good, I've just got to go under the heat pad.' He's got that fun-loving, kid demeanor about him where you don't think he's paying attention but he really is. Then to watch him go out there and see what he was able to do in that game, it was impressive. He was all over the field with tackles, he was all over the field with production and he was having fun doing it. That's kind of who Geno is, that's what he is and what he can become."
A year ago, Hayes played in only nine games before a knee injury ended his rookie season. He finished with 15 tackles, including seven on special teams, and also returned a blocked punt for a touchdown.
But Hayes admits the transition to the NFL was a big one.
"I think it has (been) because you come in from college and you still have a young mindset about things and you get here and there's a lot of stuff going on," Hayes said. "You've got to be able to catch on and figure out what's going on as far as financials and the business side of it -- all that kind of stuff. There's a learning curve to it and I think I'm still doing pretty well with it. I'm still getting the hang of some stuff right now but I think I'm doing pretty well with it."
For the first five or six weeks of the season, the Saints' offense was virtually unstoppable in coming out of the gate in the first quarter.
In their first seven games, quarterback Drew Brees and his offensive mates clicked to the tune of a 58-41 advantage. If they didn't score points on their first possession, as they did in the first five games and six of the first seven, they did it later.
Having that ability to jump on top early certainly helped the Saints finish games strong. But they have struggled in the last seven games and must get it going again for their final two regular-season games after being outscored 58-13 in that second seven-game stretch.
All told, the Saints have been outscored 99-71 in the first quarter as they prepare to finish off the regular season against Tampa Bay at home Sunday and visit Carolina on Jan. 3. Sean Payton's team has had to play from behind in recent games and suffered its first loss after 13 straight victories when it fell behind Dallas 14-0 in the first quarter and 24-3 in the third quarter.
"We work on and make a point of emphasis of starting fast," said Payton. "That's an area that we haven't done as well with lately. Falling behind 14, you don't feel like necessarily you're going to get away from doing some of the things you want to do.
"When it got to 21 later in the third quarter (against Dallas), it became a little bit more problematic. But I do think that's an area that we've talked about and we have to become better at, starting with the field position and getting the stops that we want."
When the Saints have failed to score on their first possession, the defense has compounded the problem by yielding points right away, which has forced New Orleans to play from behind too often lately.
"It's something we definitely want to address and something we really need to fix," center Jonathan Goodwin said. "These slow starts in the first quarter, we've been really putting a lot of pressure on ourselves for later in the game and it (starting faster) is definitely something we've got to get back to."