LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) -The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have always felt Barrett Ruud was tailor-made for their defense.
Big and strong enough to stop the run, agile and quick enough to cover tight ends and running backs in passing situations, and mature enough to handle the mental aspects of playing middle linebacker.
The Bucs selected Ruud in the second round in 2005 - No. 36 overall - with expectations that he would eventually replace Shelton Quarles, whose retirement this year created an opening earlier than some people anticipated.
Ruud, who started five games last season, is ready to make the most of the opportunity.
``I think last year I was always kind of in the mind-set of don't (mess) anything up. `You're in here, but you're not in here the whole time, you're in here to make sure the defense keeps running,''' Ruud said.
``Now it feels more relaxed, you just go play. You're going to make mistakes, but you don't have to worry about looking over your shoulder. You just go out, make plays and don't worry about the consequences. ... It's more of a comfort level knowing that it's my job now as opposed to kind of filling in for a little bit.''
Quarles, who accepted a job with the Bucs a job as a pro scout last week, played 10 seasons for Tampa Bay and finished his career as the franchise's fourth-leading tackler.
Although 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks always has been the unquestioned leader of the defense, Quarles ran the huddle and relayed defensive calls from the sideline.
Now it's Ruud's turn.
His biggest contribution as a rookie came on special teams, however the Bucs were encouraged by the way he responded with Quarles in and out of the lineup at various times in 2006.
``He's a good middle linebacker with a chance to become outstanding,'' coach Jon Gruden said.
``We've got to play great around him, too. The other linebackers have got to play great. Up front, we've got to play great. Our safety people and our corners - we've all got to step up. But Barrett Ruud is going to be a leader here, and he is asserting himself right now.''
A knee bruise has kept the 24-year-old off the practice field the past two days, but Gruden said Monday that he remains hopeful Ruud - one of four projected new starters on defense - will play some in Friday's preseason opener against New England.
Monday's injury report on another new starter, offensive tackle Luke Petitgout was not encouraging. He's missed a week of practice with a sore back and is not expected to play against the Patriots.
``He's not quite ready to go. ... Our goal will be to get him ready for our second preseason game,'' Gruden said.
The coach said Ruud may return to practice as early as Tuesday. In his absence, Ryan Nece, Antoine Cash and third-round draft pick Quincy Black have been filling in at middle linebacker.

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