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Zyon, Tristin McCollum got to live a dream thanks to secondary mix-up

TAMPA — Until they arrived at their first day of football practice in ninth grade at Ball High School in Galveston, Texas, identical twin brothers Zyon and Tristin McCollum would always go their separate ways on the football field.

“Going into high school, I wanted to play safety,” Zyon said. “Tristin wanted to play corner. And that’s the way we practiced in the backyard. That’s what we always were.”

It stayed that way in their initial freshman practice. But on the second day, a case of mistaken identity had a more profound impact than your typical mix-up in the secondary. In fact, it altered the career path for both players, likely for the better.

“Day 1 of high school football practice, they line all the freshmen up and say, ‘Offense over here, defense over there,’ ” Zyon said. “Then you break down the defense to corners, safeties, linebackers and all that. I go to the safeties line because I’m a safety and Tristin goes with the corners. Everything is good. The next day, we all break out and the cornerbacks coach goes, ‘Zyon! Zyon! Get over here. What are you doing? You’re a corner.’ ”

“So I went over there. The same thing happened to Tristin and he went with the safeties. At the time, we were so shy. We didn’t want to correct them. We were just happy to be there. ... It wound up working out.”

On Monday, the twins were reunited on the football field in an NFC wild-card game, Zyon’s Bucs versus Tristin’s Eagles. Tristin, who did not play in the first meeting between the teams in the regular season, was elevated from the practice squad.

“We shared the moment before the game, during the game and after the game,” Zyon said. “It still feels like a dream almost, as kids who thought about this and to see it actually play out, it was like a dream come true. It definitely wasn’t bittersweet for me. We were happy for each other.

“Of course, he wanted to win, and I wanted to win so much, too. But honestly, we were just happy for ourselves. There was a game within the game and it was surreal that we were on the field together.”

Here’s the twist.

Coach Todd Bowles knew that Job One was stopping the Eagles’ ground game. They rushed for 201 yards on 40 carries back in October when they blasted the Bucs 25-11.

Bowles decided to deploy a six-man defensive front Monday in an effort to shut down the Eagles’ ground attack. It worked, too. Philadelphia was held to a season-low 42 yards rushing.

But in order for Bowles to over-commit to the run, he had to be covered on the back end. Because of injuries to either Carlton Davis or Jamel Dean, McCollum started nine games for the Bucs this season at cornerback.

Both Davis and Dean were able to start the wild-card game, so Bowles moved Zyon to safety and also had him play some nickel cornerback.

This time it was no accident. Bowles knew exactly who he moving around in his defense.

“I’m glad I got that safety background so I’m comfortable switching,” Zyon said. “I didn’t just cover receivers also, but tight ends. I have so much confidence and I’m glad Coach Bowles has confidence to be able run a six-man front and let us cover.”

Bowles said Zyon’s versatility and overall athleticism enabled the Bucs to use some exotic defenses. “He gives us speed, he gives us versatility from a coverage standpoint. He’s a willing tackler and he gives us matchups against tight ends that we wouldn’t normally match up against very well.”

Zyon finished with three tackles against the Eagles. Tristin played on special teams covering kicks but did not record a stat.

After the game, the McCollum brothers met on the field and exchanged hugs. They posed for pictures, including one with another Ball High School alumnus: Bucs receiver Mike Evans.

“It hasn’t necessarily hit me,” Zyon said of the Bucs’ playoff run. “Not sure that I ever want it to. I’m so in the moment that I’m just focused on playing football and when they tell us to stop playing, that’s when I’ll reflect on it.”

On Thursday, Bowles was asked if Zyon eventually could move to safety full time.

“It’s too early to tell at this point,” Bowles said. “I love him at (cornerback) and I like him at safety.”

Or maybe it’s the other way around?

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