LAKE BUENA VISTA - Jovan Haye stepped onto the practice field Sunday and into uncharted territory. The front of the line is a place he's never been before. Not as a pro anyway.
He was always up front in college, starting 34 of 35 games during a three-year run at Vanderbilt. But ever since draft day 2005, Haye has been in the back of the line.
'I've been there my whole career,' the Bucs aspiring under tackle said, 'my whole career. I see those guys up there in the front of the line and I just say, 'Man I wish I could be there.''
Haye is there - finally. He just chooses not to acknowledge that fact, and wisely so. After all, as Bucs coach Jon Gruden aptly pointed out Sunday, training camp has just begun.
'Right now Jovan Haye is the leader in the clubhouse in the battle for the starting under tackle job,' Gruden said. 'But it's like the Daytona 500. It's hot, and there's still 499 laps to go.'
Not only that, but also there are a lot of racers still on the track. Haye has four players chasing him for that starting under tackle's job and a couple of them have been at the front of the line before.
Kevin Carter is one of them. Though he's played mostly end, the 12-year veteran has some experience at tackle as well. Ellis Wyms, the incumbent starter, is another.
Then there's Greg Peterson, the project the Bucs drafted out of North Carolina Central in the fifth round this year. And Darrell Campbell, another back-of-the-liner who came aboard as a free agent this past offseason.
'It's a very competitive situation at under tackle,' defensive line coach Larry Coyer said. 'We have a lot of bodies there, but Haye is in front of all of them right now. He's the first guy.'
His journey to the front of the line has not been an agonizingly long one. It has lasted just two years. Still, Haye's ascension from back-liner to front-liner has been a study in persistence and determination.
The study begins on draft day 2005, when it took until the end of the sixth round before the Carolina Panthers laid claim to Haye, finally taking him with the 189th pick.
Looking back, Haye admits his line dance might have been a little easier had he not left college following his junior year. Still, he says he doesn't regret leaving college early.
'I probably could have benefited from another year in college, but my feeling was, if I'm good enough, I'll stick,' Haye said. 'If I'm not good enough, then that extra year probably wouldn't have made much difference.'
Haye stuck, but not for long. Unable to move up the line as a defensive end, he lasted just one season in Carolina, playing two games before being released Sept. 2, 2006.
On Sept. 3, 2006, Haye signed with Cleveland, but as you might expect, he went directly to the back of the line. Even in Cleveland, back-liners don't last long, and by late October, Haye was barely hanging on to a job.
He had long since been removed from the Browns' active roster and was filling a spot on their practice squad when the beat-up Bucs developed a need for a defensive lineman with a little versatility.
That's when Haye got his big break. Having already considered Haye on draft day, the Bucs jumped at the chance to snatch him away from Cleveland and immediately began working him at under tackle.
Their need for a body of almost any kind there was one reason for the position switch but not the only one. The biggest reason was the Bucs' long-time belief that Haye is best suited to play inside.
His size (6-foot-2, 285 pounds) is one reason for that belief. Haye's lack of elite pass-rush technique is another. That's not to say, though, that Haye can't get to the passer.
'He has tremendous balance and speed and if you have that you can be a really good pass rusher,' Coyer said. 'It will also help him if he has faith in what I tell him to do.'
No problem there. Haye is still feeling his way at the under tackle spot, so he's taking advice and instruction from anyone who's willing to offer it up and watching lots of tape.
Mostly he's watching tape of Warren Sapp, and why not? Sapp remains the ideal under tackle and even if Haye doesn't have all of Sapp's skills, he figures he can learn from watching him.
'I'm just trying to soak up everything, because right now I'm still learning,' Haye said. 'I mean, there are plays out there that I wish I could have made. It's a very demanding position.'
It may be the most demanding and important position in the Bucs' defensive scheme. That's why it requires someone special to play it. The Bucs believe they have something special in Haye.
Maybe they're right. He's proved in just a couple games with them last year that he can be a superb run stopper. He also has those pass-rush skills as well as a unique desire to never be stuck in the back of the line again.
'I told myself after I got cut by Cleveland that I'm not going to be in this position again,' Haye said. 'I'm not going to give it to them. If they take it from me they take it from me, but I refuse to give it to them.
'So I can't look at it like I'm there at the front of the line now. Because sometimes you go back and sometimes you go forward. What I have to do is make sure that I'm taking two steps forward for every step back. That way, I'll eventually get there.'
Reporter Roy Cummings can be
reached at (813) 259-7979 or