It was a familiar sight at the end of any Buffalo Bills practice the last five years.
Assistant equipment manager Randy “Woody” Ribbeck feeding footballs into a JUGS machine, and Jairus Byrd chasing them down on the other end.
Byrd, of course, left the Bills as a free agent this offseason, signing with the New Orleans Saints (his No. 31 still looks weird on undrafted free agent Kenny Ladler). His end-of-practice tradition, however, has lived on with the team’s remaining defensive backs, including the two players competing to take his job in the starting lineup.
“What he was doing, I just followed along,” said second-year veteran Duke Williams, who will compete with Da’Norris Searcy for the second safety job opposite Aaron Williams. “Playing with a guy like Byrd, you see the regimen they go by, you try to emulate the same thing. You might get the same results.”
That will be a tall order for whoever wins the job. Byrd is a three-time Pro Bowler who made 22 interceptions, 11 forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries the last five seasons for the Bills. That type of playmaking ability is not easily replaced.
“Certainly, there’s a big void to be filled with Byrd gone,” Williams said. “He’s a great player, but we have guys that can fill in. That’s why we’re competing right now.”
Williams is the lesser-known of the candidates. He played just 34 of the team’s 1,145 defensive snaps as a rookie last season, or 3 percent. He appeared in all 16 games, making seven tackles on defense and another four on special teams.
While his on-field experience is limited, Williams said his rookie year was productive in another way.
“Playing with Byrd and playing with Jimmy Leonhard, I picked up a lot of great habits from them, especially off the field,” he said. “On the field, it’s going to take care of itself – if you take care of things off the field.”
Little things like catching extra balls after practice are just part of being a professional, or what Williams calls “taking care of business.” So too are studying the playbook after hours and being diligent about recovering physically after practices through cold-tub treatments.
When Williams had his season-ending meeting with defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson, they mapped out an offseason plan.
“Get inside your playbook more, understand the game, learn what concepts we’re playing,” was Henderson’s advice, Williams said. “Make the calls, make your adjustments, be a safety and be the quarterback of the defense. That’s going to take me to the next level. … I’m a competitor. I’ve wanted the job since I first got here, and my opportunity has arisen, so I’m going to take full advantage of it.”
It’s a big year for Searcy for a couple reasons. In addition to the opportunity to land a starting role, he’s also entering the final year of his rookie contract.
“When one door closes, another opens,” Searcy said. “Jairus is a great guy. He was a great leader for our team. But this is an opportunity for somebody to step up and be a new leader.”
Searcy is coming off the best season of his career in 2013, playing in all 16 games with seven starts. He made 71 tackles and showed some big-play ability with 3.5 sacks and an interception he returned for a touchdown.
“It was a tremendous confidence boost, especially with the whole new defensive scheme we had last year,” he said.
Searcy admitted he’s more comfortable as the “box” safety – playing closer to the line of scrimmage – but has developed the ability to play at either the free or strong position.
“We started that last year, learning both sides,” he said. “That way we could stay on one side if we want to. It’s important to know both, that way a quarterback can’t get a read on it.”
Like Mike Pettine before him, new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz believes safeties in today’s NFL have to have that flexibility.
“I think the whole league has sort of moved to interchangeable safeties,” Schwartz said. “The days of having an in-the-box safety and a deep safety … all they have to do is motion a tight end and you can change it.
“You have to be able to cover a wide receiver man to man, but you also have to be able to get down in the box and tackle a 235-pound running back. You have to be able to blitz. It’s a wide-ranging skill set.”
Searcy will be playing for his fourth different defensive coordinator in his four seasons but said the transition to Schwartz’s scheme has been smooth – especially coming out of Pettine’s moving-parts design.
“I would say this is a bit more simplified. Pettine, he wanted to confuse you, and by God, he did. I know I was confused a couple times,” Searcy said with a laugh. “But by the time the season started, I knew about seven different positions, so I was squared away. With this, it’s a little more simple. My confidence is just the same, though, so I’ve just got to go out there and keep working.”
Williams likewise said Pettine’s scheme at times was “overwhelming at certain points,” but he feels that will pay off this season.
“I’m able to play faster. I’m able to play smart, make the calls and communicate the defense,” he said. “That’s what the coaches were looking for. It’s kind of like I’m broken in now. … The first year I got my feet wet, and now I’m ready to take over.”
With Aaron Williams easing his way back into workouts after shoulder surgery earlier this offseason, both Duke Williams and Searcy have played together in spring practices.
Come training camp, however, the competition will be for one starting job.
“It’s great – we’re competing on the field together,” Duke Williams said. “I love the game. He loves the game. We’re real good friends … but there’s a job on the line.”