By Fred Goodall
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers believe there’s no limit to how good Vernon Hargreaves III can be as a pro.
The talented young cornerback is coming off a solid rookie year and in training camp this summer preparing to make an even bigger difference for the Bucs.
“I have a whole 16 games under my belt now, so it’s a little bit easier,” the 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft said. “I understand the defense now, so I’m just playing faster.”
And, coaches and teammates note, with the same type of fervor and swagger that were a part of his game during a standout college career at Florida.
Hargreaves started every game a year ago, playing the side opposite four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes. He finished with 76 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble.
The Bucs went 9-7 for the franchise’s first winning record since 2010, but missed the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.
“It was tough for me last year, you know, just getting adjusted to the speed. There are great players in the league, as everybody knows. But now that I’ve played a whole season, I’m more comfortable,” Hargreaves said. “Like I said, I’m understanding the defense and I’m just playing faster.”
The 22-year-old Hargreaves, who got his first pro interception off Drew Brees, said his growth has been facilitated by playing with Grimes, who’s entering his second season with Tampa Bay after spending nine years with the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins.
Hargreaves also feels he’s benefiting from practicing every day against speedy receiver DeSean Jackson, who signed with the Bucs in free agency and is one of the NFL’s most explosive playmakers.
“I’ve been watching Brent since I was in 10th grade. He’s always been my favorite, and it’s cool to play with him,” Hargreaves said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t say much, you’ve just got to watch him. You’ve just got to watch how he practices, watch the things he does, watch how he takes care of his body, and that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m trying to be my best Brent Grimes if that makes any sense.”
Hargreaves chuckled, though it’s far from a laughing matter for the Bucs.
Coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the head coach in Atlanta when Grimes played there, want the young cornerback to absorb as much knowledge as they can from his 34-year-old mentor.
“That’s a good guy for Vernon to be learning from. Vernon was a first-round pick. Vernon’s a good football player. He just needs the experience that Brent already has and I’m quite sure that Brent’s willing to share,” Koetter said.
Hargreaves’ only interception as a rookie came in his 13th game. The Bucs have asked him to make a concerted effort to be more aggressive and take away the ball, something he excelled in for his three years at Florida.
So far, Koetter and Smith like what they’ve seen during offseason workouts and training camp.
“He’s answered the bell on that. Obviously, he’s got to carry it over to the season, but (we’re) very pleased with what he’s doing,” Koetter said, adding confidence is the biggest difference he’s noticed in Hargreaves from last season.
“He just seems lighter on his feet. … He’s confident, and those corners have got to be confident. They’ve got to have short memories,” Koetter said. “Brent Grimes is playing lights-out right now, and Vernon’s right on his heels.”
Jackson, entering his 10th NFL season, has been impressed, too.
“He’s intelligent and he has a lot of great instincts,” the former Philadelphia and Washington receiver said. “He’s not shying away from any competitiveness out there on the field. That’s what you ask for in a corner.”