TAMPA — An argument can be made that Lovie Smith’s initial rise through the NFL coaching ranks was due at least in some small part to the quality of the middle linebackers he worked with at each stop.
After all, Smith always seemed to be working with one of the game’s best.
As a linebackers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1990s, he had perennial All-Pro Hardy Nickerson; as defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams from 2001 to 2003, he had future four-time Pro Bowler London Fletcher; and as head coach of the Chicago Bears from 2004 to 2012, he had eventual All-Decade standout Brian Urlacher.
Mason Foster, the fourth-year middle linebacker Smith inherited this year as the Bucs’ new head coach, has yet to earn the kind of honors that helped define the careers of those who ran Smith’s previous defenses.
A few months in Smith’s scheme could change all that.
Though a certain inherent skill set is among the prerequisites to success in Smith’s defense, the system is designed to allow linebackers in general and the middle backer in particular to excel.
“I told my guys in our first meeting that you couldn’t ask to play in a better system,’’ said Nickerson, now the Bucs’ linebackers coach. “This is a linebacker-friendly system, and if you are prepared to play, you’ll be in position to play well.’’
Smith’s version of the Tampa 2 is a free-flowing scheme, one that allows the middle linebacker a lot of freedom, more certainly than Foster was given the last two years while playing under former Bucs head coach Greg Schiano.
Schiano wanted his linebackers to play big so they could plug gaps and create play-making opportunities for the weakside linebacker. For Foster that meant putting on a few more pounds than he was comfortable with.
Most of that extra weight is gone, the result of a far more regimented diet than he was on a year ago. It calls for less beef, more turkey and chicken, and a lot of vegetables, though Foster still has a hard time getting those down.
“Salads I’ve always been OK with,’’ he said. “But vegetables — green beans, corn, broccoli — I never liked them. I’ve kind of grown to like green beans and corn now, and my mom makes me eat the broccoli, so it’s all good.’’
There’s no denying that. Since the spring, Foster has trimmed about 7 pounds off what Nickerson described as a “chubby’’ 244-pound frame. More importantly, he has reduced his body fat by better than 3 percent.
Already, Foster is noticing a difference.
“I feel a lot quicker and a lot lighter on my feet,’’ he said. “I just feel better and healthier. You always hear people talk about how you have to eat and sleep right, and I always slept well, but now that I’m eating better I just feel a whole lot healthier.’’
Foster’s outlook is healthier, too. He had no problem following Schiano’s orders to add weight and plug holes in the offense. But he’s always been a player who was at his best playing with the freedom he has in Smith’s scheme.
“I feel like it’s back to the way I learned how to play defense in college, where I was always running from sideline to sideline and playing downhill,” the University of Washington product said.
“I mean, Coach Schiano had a lot of different things he wanted us to do. And they were good things that worked, don’t get me wrong. But this defense is just a great defense for a linebacker.’’
The impressive list of Pro Bowlers who have played in it previously is proof. Foster would like to add his name to that list, and his chances may not be as far fetched as some might think.
Since coming to Tampa as a third-round pick in 2011, Foster has recorded more tackles (281) than any other defensive player in his draft class, and his five interceptions and six sacks over that span rank first and second, respectively, among the 4-3 linebackers and 3-4 inside backers from that draft.
“We were watching some highlights from last year awhile back, and (one of the two) interception returns Mason had for a touchdown was about as good a play as you’re going to see a Mike (middle) linebacker make,’’ Smith said.
“As far as his ceiling goes, I don’t know. We asked him to drop a little bit of weight, and he did that and he looks quicker. All I know is that for us to play the way we need, he needs to up his level.’’
Nickerson believes Foster can do that. He believes Foster’s added quickness will help him better cover receivers down the middle of the field and that his speed and toughness going forward will continue to allow him to excel near the line of scrimmage.
“I definitely think he has the ability to do all that,’’ Nickerson said. “But it’s a matter of doing all the little things that the system requires the middle backer to do that determines how good you are.
“The guys that have played that Mike linebacker position and have played it well in this system have been those kinds of guys, and you can see Mason’s working hard at getting the system down and doing those things.
“You can tell that he’s spent time away from the facility working at it, and I think seeing that, you know that he is committed to getting better. And I think he’s going to do it. Mason is a guy that can get the job done.’’