TAMPA -- For five seasons, Lovie Smith had an up-close look at Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks as they formed one of the best defensive tackle-linebacker combinations in NFL history.
For five seasons in the late 1990s, Smith was the linebackers coach on those Tampa Bay Buccaneers teams, working closely with Brooks, but admiring the greatness of Sapp. Now back as head coach of the Bucs, Smith might be readying to see the sequel.
Act two stars Gerald McCoy in the Sapp role, with Lavonte David playing Brooks -- although they have a long road to get to the same level of Sapp and Brooks, who are both now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"They're talented, but compare Gerald and Lavonte to Warren and Derrick early in their careers," Smith said. "That's where those guys are. They can be special players."
With Smith back, the Bucs are going back to the old Tampa-2 defense, which is a perfect fit for McCoy and David and the same defense that helped make Sapp and Brooks stars. McCoy will be the under-tackle, which means he can just push up the field in a one-gap style of defense. Sapp excelled in that role, and McCoy has been special in that spot during this camp.
David will be the weakside or "Will" linebacker, a spot that suits his run-and-chase skills. It is a marquee spot in this defense.
"Those guys are once-in-a-lifetime players," McCoy said of Sapp and Brooks. "We just have to be us. I can't be Sapp. Lavonte can't be Brooks. Those guys are Hall of Famers. We have to be us, and be the best we can be."
McCoy was the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, just behind Detroit's Ndamukong Suh. I ranked McCoy ahead of Suh on my top-100 list this year after he had a career-best 9 1/2 sacks last season, and also excelled in the run game. McCoy went to his second consecutive Pro Bowl last season.
David wasn't as lucky. For some reason, he wasn't selected to play in the game -- a huge gaffe by voters -- but was named first-team All-Pro. He had seven sacks, five interceptions and 145 tackles, becoming the first linebacker since Brian Urlacher in 2007 to get at least five sacks and five interceptions in the same season.
"He's a legend, a first-ballot Hall of Famer," David said about Urlacher. "When I hear my name mentioned next to his, it's humbling."
Yet there was no Pro Bowl selection.
"I thought I was going, but at the end of the day all I can do is keep working to be better," David said.
That's what you get with these two young Bucs, dedicated professionals trying to be great. McCoy is always the first player on the practice field, setting a good example for the rest of the team.
"McCoy is the unquestioned leader of our team," Smith said. "Nobody works harder."
A year ago, McCoy worked so hard that he lost too much weight. He came to camp in the 285 range, but he's now back to 300, and it shows. He's thicker and stronger, but still looks as quick as ever. It's that quickness that will play perfectly in the scheme the Bucs are using now.
Sapp was cat-quick, which allowed him to excel both pushing the pocket and playing the run. McCoy said he studies Sapp's tapes to pick up little things that can help make him better. He has also become friends with Sapp. They text. They talk. Sapp offers him tips to make him better.
"He was my favorite player growing up," McCoy said. "So it's a dream come true for him to be one of my closest friends. I watch how he plays certain plays. He's one of a kind. I can't be him. But I can try and take little things here and there from him."
David has talked football with Brooks as well. Like Brooks, David was considered too small when he came out of Nebraska to be a quality linebacker. Brooks once told me teams wanted to move him to safety, but he was steadfast in his desire to be a linebacker. While David wasn't asked to move to safety, he was told he wasn't big enough, which is why he wasn't drafted until the 58th pick in 2012.
In the two years since, he has showed off his speed, toughness and the ability to get to the football. The seven sacks last season are a high total for a 4-3 outside linebacker, and the five picks show how good he is in coverage, something that helped Brooks become a star.
"That's a motivation for me, that they said I am too small," David said "They said I couldn't play linebacker in the NFL. That's always in the back of my mind."
Both players like the scheme the Bucs now use, although David was quick to point out he did a lot of good things in the old one. He probably won't blitz as much now, but he still should be able to make a lot of plays. Smith's defense requires a good "Will" linebacker.
"I haven't played a game in it yet," David said. "The past two years I was successful in that scheme. Hopefully, it will continue. There is the buzz that this defensive scheme is great for Will linebackers. Hopefully, it will carry over to me."
McCoy seemed much more upbeat about the new scheme.
"It's awesome, hit it and get it, less thinking, just play," McCoy said. "It's a one-gap penetration defense. Not much more to it. It's predicated on the under-tackle, which is what I play. I have to be Grade A at all times. The front line has got to get to the quarterback. That's what we're here for. That's what Tampa Bay is known for."
When Sapp and Brooks played together, they were compared to Joe Greene and Jack Ham, another great lineman-linebacker combo. Now it's these guys being compared to them. The only difference is they have Brooks and Sapp there for counsel -- and they also happen to play in the exact same defense for the exact same team.
"Warren and Derrick are Buccaneers for life," Smith said. "And those guys [McCoy and David] have a great relationship with them. It's easy to see who you are as an athlete when you see those guys and we're playing in the exact same defense."
Sequels rarely live up to the original. But this one has a chance. It's still early, but the McCoy-David pairing has a chance to be a great one.