TAMPA - As he worked through his senior season at Buffalo last year, Steven Means couldn't help but notice that a rookie linebacker out of Nebraska was starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A linebacker at the time, Means began to think he could earn playing time as a rookie, as well, if he could somehow land with the Bucs.
It's easy to see why.
Nebraska-bred Lavonte David was one of three rookies to start for Tampa Bay a year ago. And there's a good chance two more will earn starting jobs this season.
"You never know," coach Greg Schiano said Thursday after he put the rookies through the first of a series of workouts before next week's official start of training camp. "There are certainly positions where there is great competition, and we're looking to see who the best is going to be."
One of those positions is left cornerback, where second-round draft pick Johnthan Banks will get a chance to push veteran Eric Wright out of his job and into a slot corner position.
Another is at nose tackle, where fourth-round pick Akeem Spence will engage in a camp battle with veterans Gary Gibson and Derek Landri for the right to play alongside Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
Gibson will open camp as the projected starter, and the same likely holds true for Wright at corner, because Schiano doesn't believe in giving away jobs or playing time.
"To me it's like a championship fight," Schiano said. "You have to take the belt away from the champ. That's kind of what happened last year. The guys that we played did that. They showed that it was the right thing to do."
David certainly did. Despite taking on the added responsibility of calling defensive plays, he led the Bucs and ranked seventh in the NFL with 139 tackles, including 20 for a loss, fourth-most in the league.
Doug Martin proved he was the right choice, as well, at running back, where he earned a Pro Bowl berth after accumulating 1,926 yards from scrimmage, the second-most in team history.
And Mark Barron proved to be the right choice at safety, where he emerged from a midseason slump to finish strong, ranking second on the team and 10th in the NFL in pass breakups with 10.
The Bucs are counting on Banks, Spence and several other rookies to provide similar results this season.
Those rookies, however, know they're going to have to work hard to earn the opportunity.
"They're not going to just throw me into the fire," Banks said Thursday. "They're not going to just give me a job. We have a lot of good corners here, so I know that I'm going to have to come out here and work for it."
The work Banks, Spence and others have turned in so far has impressed Schiano and his staff. Those early impressions, though, can sometimes be deceiving.
"As a coach, you kind of look and say, 'OK,' because this guy may be performing just a little bit better in practice," he said. "But then you have to factor in the experience and having been under the lights and all that."
The way Schiano sees it, the lights come on for the rookies as soon as full-squad training camp workouts begin. The real test, though, comes in preseason games.
"We've been in helmets and jerseys, and that's not the way you really play the game," Schiano said. "So, we need to go out and play full pads and see how it all shakes out. But that's what training camp is for, right?
"It's a day-after-day-after-day thing now, and that's where you can really make huge improvements. That's where rookies really make their fastest ascension, so I'm excited to see how the competition plays out."
Means is making the move to defensive end, but he remains hopeful the competition will play out in a way that allows him to play regularly once the season begins.
"The coaches all said when we first came in (we could compete for regular playing time)," he said. "So every day I go out there, I try to make sure that when the day is over I don't have any regrets."
Schiano doesn't want to have any regrets, either. He's not willing to promise a rookie a job, but he will give him every chance possible to earn one.
"It's like anything else," he said. "You know you're going to live with some growing pains and that there are going to be some first-time-through mistakes with those guys. But when you look at the equation, you go with what gives you the best chance to win."