Bigger role, more responsibility for Bucs center Robert Hainsey

TAMPA — Robert Hainsey worked hard to improve his body during the offseason.

He spent another month this summer in 100-plus-degree heat of Phoenix, Arizona, training again with former Bucs center A.Q. Shipley. They would lift and eventually make their way to a high school for some field work in the afternoons.

“I worked a ton. I’m still young, I’m still maturing,” said Hainsey, 25. “My body is still maturing. I definitely came in at a great spot weight-wise (6-4, 306 pounds) and body fat and that kind of stuff, so it feels good to see that the work you put in the offseason makes a difference and you can notice it, other people notice it. You feel better. You feel more prepared.

“A lot went into it, but it was well worth it.”

It’s already paying off. For the second straight season, Hainsey is replacing Ryan Jensen, who will miss the season after tearing three knee ligaments in training camp more than a year ago. Hainsey can’t match Jensen’s snarl, but he has plenty of smarts.

With a new scheme under offensive coordinator Dave Canales, Hainsey will be asked to make more of the protection calls for the offensive line, taking much of that responsibility off Baker Mayfield.

“Really, it’s just he’s sharp,” Canales said of Hainsey. “He gets them all going on the same page. Whether it’s the run game or the protection, those are the guys that make this offense go. So you all know, we try to take as much off the quarterback as possible and Hainsey allows us to do that.

“Baker is just going to have to fix some things because Hainsey can’t necessarily see the rotation of the safeties. That’s where Baker has got to say, ‘No, no, no, switch over this way or go out that way.’ But the starting point allows the quarterback, particularly in the pass game, it allows him to think more about his progression and less about the primary starting point of the protection. He’s already thinking down the road as far as coverages go.”

Of course, when the offseason began, Hainsey had no way of knowing he would wind up back at center. He planned on competing for one of the starting jobs at guard. Left guard Luke Goedeke was moving to right tackle while right tackle Tristan Wirfs was moving to left tackle. Hainsey was uncertain where he was supposed to be in this line dance.

“I worked center, left guard, right guard all offseason not knowing what was going to happen again,” Hainsey said. “As you guys know, I train with A.Q. Shipley. I was out there all those weeks and we kind of switched it up every day. But all that work translates into each position, too. So any day spent on guard wasn’t lost because it translates to center. I can use all the coaching points that we worked on.”

Hainsey played tackle at Notre Dame when he was selected by the Bucs in the third round of the 2020 draft. It wasn’t clear when, where or if he would find a place in the Bucs’ starting lineup. Now he suddenly is one of their most reliable starters.

On his left is Chargers free-agent guard Matt Feiler. On his right is North Dakota State rookie Cody Mauch.

“All year and all offseason, you’re preparing like you’re going to play every snap, every game,” Hainsey said. “I got to do it last year and was able to take this offseason to fix all the things I really wanted to fix and hone in on some technique things I really wanted to clean this year. I prepared the whole offseason and all of camp like I was going to be the starter.”

Shipley knows something about backing up Jensen. He did it in 2020. Having played for Bruce Arians with four different teams, Shipley came to Tampa Bay for one season and started two games before a neck injury ended his career.

“We did a lot of the same stuff,” Hainsey said of his workouts with Shipley this year. “The only thing where (the experience of playing) helps with is being able to think a little bit more about what we need to work on. We’ll go back and watch all offseason and understanding where I struggled last year in games and those were the things I focused heavily on. And coming back for (organized team activities), camps, preseason — all that — the differences I’ve noticed has been pretty large, honestly. It’s a great feeling because you know again that all that work paid off.”

Nothing should improve Hainsey and his linemates like the new offensive system under Canales. It features a lot of outside zone runs. It utilizes the athleticism and foot speed this group has demonstrated in the past.

“We ran a duo play to Rachaad (White) to the left side and I don’t think anybody touched him for about 5 or 6 yards,” Canales said. “He gained 9 (yards) on the play. Three was no nuance to the play. It was big men caving the side in. Well, that’s easy football. It was easy to get excited about that.”

There’s no question the offensive line still is a work in progress and the biggest concern again this season. Aside from the musical chairs, there isn’t much proven depth behind those starters.

But if the Bucs are fortunate to reach the playoffs, at least Hainsey likely will keep his starting job. He didn’t play in the 31-14 loss to the Cowboys last season. Jensen returned and somehow played the whole wild-card game.

But this is Hainsey’s team and his time.

“It’s fun playing next to those guys,” he said. “We’re excited to let it roll.”

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