When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released their depth chart for the first preseason game, it confirmed what's been apparent since the opening day of training camp. The NFL's youngest team is counting on rookie Mason Foster to be its starting middle linebacker.
Despite coach Raheem Morris insisting the third-round draft pick is not being handed the job, the former University of Washington star has quickly settled into the spot vacated by free agent Barrett Ruud, who led the Bucs in tackles the past four seasons.
The Bucs open the preseason Friday night at Kansas City, and Foster is eager to show he belongs.
"It's one of those things where I've just come in and want to be the best player I can be," the 6-foot-1, 241-pound native of Seaside, Calif., said.
"I feel like if I play to my standards, go out there and do what I can do, they're going to find a way for me to play somehow. If it's starting, if it's coming in nickel (situations) or whatever, I know if I play to my ability they were going to find a way for me to get on the field."
As the middle linebacker, it's part of Foster's duties to be quarterback of the defense, a role that also includes relaying plays to teammates and making sure every lines up in the right spots. He fits right in on a unit that at this point features just three starters who have more than three years of NFL experience.
Foster is one of two rookies who listed as first-string two weeks into camp. The other is defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Tampa Bay's first-round draft pick.
"It's exciting to be out there with the twos (second-teamers), let alone the ones. ... Out there with the ones, you're playing with guys I watched as a little kid," Foster said, referring to cornerback Ronde Barber, who's preparing for his 15th season and at 36 is even older than Morris, who turns 35 in September.
"I just want to play as hard as I can, do whatever I can to help the team win," Foster added. "Every day you step out there, there's competition. You've got prove yourself. It's a privilege to be on this team, and I approach it like that. I feel like I've got to work on my overall game. NFL is totally different than college. I'm working on everything."
A team captain at Washington as a senior, Foster led the Pac-10 in tackles and was named defensive MVP of the Huskies' Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska with 12 stops, including three for losses and two sacks. He set a school record by forcing six fumbles in 2009, ranking third in the nation.
"I've really just come in and competed at the highest level possible, played as hard as I can and stood out to them," Foster said. "I worked as hard as possible to get my head in the playbook, learn everything and try to be the quarterback of the defense. Everybody's helping me out — all the veterans — and it's paying off."
As the youngest coach in the NFL, Morris has not shied from using young players. He guided the league's most youthful roster to a 10-6 finish in 2010, even though the stunning turnaround from a 3-13 record the previous season didn't produce a playoff berth.
Morris cautioned that not much should be read into initial depth charts, but conceded that Foster has had the best camp of any player at his position. Second-year pro Tyrone McKenzie and rookie free agent Derrell Smith are listed behind him.
"He's doing well. It's hard to say the job is his, and you've got to go through the (preseason) games," the coach said. "You've got to go out there and prove yourself. But you want to give him an opportunity to win it."
McKenzie was signed to Tampa Bay's practice squad last November after entering the league as a third-round draft pick of the New England Patriots in 2009.v He was promoted to the active roster in December and appeared in the final two games of the season.
When the Buccaneers decided Ruud, who signed with the Tennessee Titans, not longer fits into their plans, McKenzie seemed like a likely frontrunner for the starting job because of his familiarity with the defensive system.
The second-year linebacker from South Florida said he's trying to keep the decision to place Foster at the top of the depth chart in perspective.
"You respect it," McKenzie said, "and do what you have to do for the team to get better."