Mike James Joins Ahmad Black at Tampa Bay

TAMPA | Following a recent offseason workout, Bucs rookie running back Mike James was talking to the media when safety Ahmad Black, who was walking past, yelled, "Polk County!"

Black then threw two fingers in the air and kept walking.

James, a product of Ridge Community High and University of Miami shook his head and smiled.

Despite playing at rival schools — Black played at Lakeland High and the University of Florida — and playing on different sides of the ball, the two have a established a connection that some might not understand. Nothing against the players from Dade, Broward or even Duval counties, they are from Polk County and proud of it.

"It's great having someone from the county on the same team," James said. "I'm hardly home, but I'm always repping." (That's short for "representing," if you're not up on the slang.)

If there was any doubt, Black makes sure the rookie doesn't forget where he's from.

"I don't call him by his name. I call him Polk County," Black said. "All the time.

"He's come out, and it's obvious he's a pretty good player. I'm excited to have him here."

The Bucs are excited to have the sixth-round pick, as well.

During the draft, the Bucs traded running back LeGarrette Blount, then were able to move up in the draft to select James.

The team loved him off the field, too: his dedication to charity work, his maturation. They think James can make an impact in his rookie season.

"Although you could tell he had a lot of football knowledge coming in, Mike was open to growing on this level," running backs coach Earnest Byner said. "He's been open to the teaching we've had in this room. The guy has the ability to compete. He's going to make the room better by his attitude and his approach to the game."

The Bucs see the 5-foot-10, 223-pound James as a backup to Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin. They also see James being a mainstay on special teams this year.

James said by the end of the team's offseason workouts, he was starting to get more comfortable.

"Things are starting to slow down a little bit," he said. "I'm starting to get the hang of things, and I feel good.

"The toughest part was getting acclimated with everything around me, learning the schedule, learning how to conduct myself here, conduct myself there," James said. "That's probably been the toughest thing, getting acclimated to everything — the attention, the people around you, the other players, how to conduct yourself in the locker room, the meeting room, on and off the field. It's just a different demeanor."

James said Black has helped in the transition.

"He's a guy that I listen to," James said. "I try to understand what he does and then mimic him because he's been in this for a while."

About to enter his third year, Black had a good offseason. Known as a guy who likes to have fun with his friends and teammates, there has been a noticeably different side of Black, whether he's between the goalposts or in meeting rooms. He's focused.

And while he still keeps everyone in stitches in the locker room, Black is slowly developing into a leader.

"Having last year under my belt has made me real comfortable," he said. "I just have to keep going and keep grinding and getting better from here."

During a recent workout, the Tampa Bay Bucs defense was going against the offense in a passing situation. Right before the offense could snap the ball, you could hear Black yelling a call to his defensive teammates. The players switched to another defense and came up with a stop.

Following the play, safety coach Jeff Hafley called Black over and gave him a low five and patted his helmet.

"I think the biggest thing with Ahmad is his understanding of the defense," Hafley said. "It's his second go-round, and he's playing a position where there is a lot to learn. He's got to do a lot back there. Where he's impressed me is his knowledge of the defense; his knowledge of the game. He's become quite a leader back there — making some of the calls and making the checks has impressed me. He's very focused, and I'm really excited to get him to preseason."

Last year, Black played in all 16 games and finished with 32 tackles, two interceptions, five passes broken up and one forced fumble.

Even with the addition of All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson, Black is expected to see plenty of action in passing situations this season.

Black, who won two state high school titles and a BCS national title at Florida, wants to add the NFL's ultimate prize to his mantle.

"I just want to win," he said. "Whatever my coaches and teammates need me to do, that's what I'll do."

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