Welcome to Day 2 of Steelers training camp. One more unpadded practice in helmets and shorts before the real evaluating begins. Head coach Mike Tomlin is not big on evaluating football players in shorts, and for that reason, Wednesday starts the process for several of the younger players who hope to make the team this summer.
I wrote about one of those players today. Alejandro Villanueva is going to have plenty of opportunities over the next month to show the coaches what he can do. With top reserve Mike Adams rehabbing a back injury for four weeks it’s Villanueva who will get the first opportunity for extended playing time in his place.
This is an important summer for Villanueva, who spent last season on the practice squad. He has never played in an NFL game and turns 27 in September. The Steelers like what they have seen from him over the past year he’s been in their program, but teams don’t usually spend a lot of time on players in their mid- to late-20s unless they prove they are capable of contributing.
For that reason, the next four weeks are the most important ones of Villanueva’s professional football career.
This is his first camp with the Steelers. He joined the practice squad after the final cuts were made last year after playing for the Eagles during the preseason. To this point there has been little opportunity for him to truly show the coaches what he can do on a consistent basis.
Under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement NFL teams are allowed only 14 padded practices during the regular season. That’s it. Villanueva will get that and thensome this summer.
Don’t be surprised if Villanueva is a camp darling. Last fall, during those infrequent padded practices, the coaches would have the second-stringers compete in blocking drills at the end of practice after the starters had taken their competitive reps. Villanueva more than held his own and in one memorable practice dominated second-round pick Stephon Tuitt, who a short time later would become a starter.
Villanueva is looking forward to his first opportunity compete as an offensive lineman in a game. That will come against the Vikings Aug. 9 in the Hall of Fame Game.
“Once you put on pads and it’s a game environment then I can evaluate where I am in my game and see what I have to focus on,” he said. “And make a case for the roster.”
Here are some additional quotes from Villanueva that did not make it into my story this morning:
On Adams being out: “I don’t think it matters. I’m not competing against one guy. I’m competing against everyone else in the league right now. Whether they drafted a guy in the first round or didn’t draft a guy at all I thought it was up to me to make the team and contribute. For me, I just have to work really hard on my skills and not worry about who’s available, who’s healthy and who’s not.”
On his leading the linemen in the conditioning run: “I was fortunate to train in Spain, where family is [earlier this summer] where it’s pretty hot as well. Distance is never a problem for me. When you’re in the army you have to run a lot longer than football. The favorite run in the army is the five-mile run.”
On carrying close to 340 pounds: “I feel good with the weight. For me, it’s the explosiveness and short distance. I feel good with my physical conditioning. The mental aspect will be more important.”
The first training camp of the summer did not look at whole lot different from any of the dozen or so practices the Steelers had this spring during OTAs and minicamp. In fact, it wasn’t different at all.
Since the newest collective bargaining agreement was ratified by the players in 2011 teams must put players through an acclimation period of two practices before graduating to padded practices. The Steelers will practice in shorts and helmets again tomorrow, will have a scheduled day off Tuesday before donning the pads for the first time on Wednesday.
“I just want to establish a good foundation of how we work,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “We have to establish a good foundation of how we work, a level of expectation of what we’re looking for. I thought it was a good start.”
The Steelers picked up where they left off in the spring with an emphasis on the goal line offense and defense. Once again, there was a competitive period to begin practice that featured one touchdown pass to Heath Miller but also two interceptions from the defense.
“We realize on both sides of the ball that’s a significant space and a significant down,” Tomlin said. “It’s been good work. Hopefully, it’s competitive. The defense will win some, the offense will win some. I think the defense won the majority of them today.”
A couple of other notes from practice:
*It was only the first day of camp, but Cortez Allen had a hard time matching up against the Steelers’ top two receivers. Antonio Brown burned him on sideline route and Martavis Bryant turned a short pass into a long gain when he made a nice move on him.
*Converted quarterbacks Devin Gardner and Tyler Murphy continued to take some snaps at quarterback. The former college quarterbacks switched to receiver in the spring but also took some snaps from center. Tomlin said that will continue during camp.
“We’re going to move those guys back and forth between quarterback and receiver,” he said. “We’ll find a rhythm there. We’ll give them an opportunity to show what they’re capable of at both spots.”
*In addition to the five players on the PUP list, Tomlin held out veterans James Harrison and Will Allen.
“I’m going to protect him from himself,” Tomlin said of Harrison, who is entering his 13th NFL season. “He and Will Allen are too old to be working right now.”
*After Ben Roethlisberger told Ed Bouchette on Sunday that the goal this season was to average 30 points per game, Tomlin was asked about it.
“I just want to see one more than our opponent,” he said. “So whatever that entails. I don’t worry about the style points. I’ll let you and Ben sort that out.”
A few more training camp stories from the past before we move on to the present on this 50th anniversary of the Steelers’ summers at Saint Vincent College:
--- Bill Cowher often has said he welcomed the newspaper strike in Pittsburgh in 1992 because it took some pressure off him and his team in his first season as Steelers coach. I like to think I still found ways to add to that pressure.
It did not take long either. One day in that training camp of 1992, I saw star inside linebacker Hardy Nickerson walking on campus with a wrap on one hand. He told me he had a broken bone, but that he would still practice and play.
The Post-Gazette may have been down but we weren’t out. We wrote stuff that the paper put out as faxes to all kinds of people, especially radio and TV outlets and the Associated Press. (The Pittsburgh Press went on strike, which stopped the PG from printing because they shared the same union pressmen, etc., who were on strike).
So I reported in that PG fax what I knew about Nickerson’s injury and word spread quickly. Cowher was incensed and the next day he chewed me out for putting Nickerson “in danger” because opponents now would target the linebacker’s hand! Never mind that everyone who saw the open practices at camp could see Nickerson’s bandaged hand and figure it out for themselves.
I believed Cowher was being too paranoid, or maybe he was just trying to put the media in its place early-on as head coach. It did not work. I told Cowher I thought it was ridiculous for a guard or tackle to try to go after Nickerson’s wounded hand. He told me I was naïve.
Nickerson went on to have a great 1992 season and then left in the NFL’s first true free agent class to join Tampa Bay.
--- Also in Cowher’s first camp with the Steelers, one of the Saint Vincent security guards pointed out to us that there was a small, undetectable camera lens over the doorway at Bonaventure Hall that monitored the goings and comings of everyone, including whether players were violating curfew.
Today, that news would not be surprising, but this was 1992 and there were still concerns about Big Brother. I thought little of it at the time, other than to make sure my hair was straight as I passed through the doorway. Rick Starr of the Valley News Dispatch, however, wrote it with all the Big Brother implications and all and virtually accused Cowher and the Steelers of violating everyone’s privacy.
Oh, did Cowher rip into Starr, making my Nickerson debate with him sound like afternoon tea in comparison. Cowher told the writer it was Saint Vincent that had installed the cameras for their own use, not the Steelers. Harrumph!
--- Chuck Noll steadfastly refused to allow the shotgun formation to be used at training camp, he was stubborn about it even though the shotgun was becoming popular in the league in the ‘80s and his quarterbacks would have liked to use it, especially once Bubby Brister arrived.
Jack Lambert, not long after his retirement following the 1984 season, joined one of the local TV stations as a commentator. One of his first reports at training camp was providing inside info that Noll finally would unveil the shotgun formation at Saint Vincent. Noll never did so either that summer or that season.
A few camps later, the Saint Vincent campus was invaded by skunks with distemper. Whenever one was spotted, a call went out either to the game commission or the state troopers, who would arrive and shoot it dead.
One afternoon while we were watching practice, someone noted that another skunk was shot that morning on the edge of the practice field with a .22 rifle.
“Why didn’t they use a shotgun?” I asked, figuring that weapon would have made it easier to hit the target.
Jim Kriek, the longtime sports editor of the Connellsville Courier with a wonderfully wry sense of humor, did not hesitate and replied, “Because Chuck won’t allow the shotgun in training camp!”
--- In the second half of the 1990s as the Steelers were trying to get a new stadium, they had some dispute about the land around it or who would develop the land, etc. The Steelers wanted to do something and Mayor Tom Murphy had other ideas.
Anyway, during that dispute I was watching a camp practice on the sideline with Dan Rooney. A football was kicked into the crowd on the hillside and the gent who caught it did not throw it back (I think he had children with him). A ballboy went into the crowd, reclaimed the football and returned it to the field to a smattering of boos from the fans.
Bill Cowher stopped practice, grabbed the football and climbed the hill to deliver it back to the fan who had caught it. The place erupted in cheers and Dan Rooney told me Cowher was so popular that he could beat “Smurphy” in a race for Pittsburgh mayor. Oooh, that was good in so many ways, including the fact that Tom Murphy was not a tall man.
I asked Dan Rooney if he meant what he said and that I’d like to write it. He told me to go ahead. I did and it naturally received plenty of attention.
The bottom line, though, was that Mayor Tom Murphy, in office until 2006, would became an important political ally to the Steelers in their ultimately successful attempts to build Heinz Field.
--- Merril Hoge, who is here in Latrobe this weekend with an ESPN crew that will broadcast from camp Monday, was one of the Steelers “stars” during a down time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s under Chuck Noll. The Steelers were supposed to play a preseason game in Ireland in 1990 but after a lack of support for the game, it was switched to Montreal against the New England Patriots.
That June, the Steelers sent some representatives to Montreal to promote the game. One of those chosen to go was Hoge. This was in the easy days of flying, when you could even use a ticket under someone else’s name to fly in this country – but not internationally.
I had heard the ensuing story about what happened when Hoge arrived at the airport but I waited until training camp that summer to see if he would confirm it for me. He did and I wound up writing it. Here’s what happened:
Hoge arrived at the airport and when he checked in, they asked for his driver’s license. He said he did not bring it with him and why was that a problem. He was told while he did not need a license to fly in the U.S., he needed one to fly internationally.
Hoge said he was going to Montreal, and isn’t that in the U.S.?
We’ve been posting news stories all day on the web site about Kevin Colbert’s contract extension, Le’Veon Bell’s appeal and the five players who will start camp on the PUP list. Here are some other notes from report day:
Antonio Brown showed up to camp in a black and gold Steelers-themed Rolls Royce.
“Start off the year with some excitement,” Brown said. “Rolls Royce thought it would be good to send me up in something great to Latrobe. I’m excited to get to work.”
It’s a far cry from the automobile he drove to his first camp in 2010. That was a Jeep Wrangler.
So he did the Rolls drive?
“It feels like a boat, real smooth, real subtle, stars in the ceiling and it got our favorite colors, right?” Brown said.
Even though Brown’s mode of transportation has changed one thing has not. His brother, Desmond, drove him to camp again, keeping that tradition alive.
Brown won’t be driving the Rolls Royce around campus, but he will be cruising around on a hover board. He was one of many players who showed up to camp hover boards.
“Another company hooked me up,” Brown said. “I’ve been getting a lot of hookups.”
On the spot
Center Maurkice Pouncey was asked which player on offense might surprise this season. His answer was unexpectedly candid and sent a not-so-subtle message to a teammate.
“I’m ready to see Dri Archer do something,” Pouncey said. “I’m excited for him. We need to go past the 15 [yard line] on kickoff returns. That would be awesome.”
As the Steelers report for their 50th training camp at Saint Vincent College today, some more stories from my time covering them there:
The boss, Bruce Keidan, asked me in 1985 if I’d like to cover the Steelers. I had just finished covering the Pittsburgh Maulers in their one and only year in the USFL and our Steelers beat man at the Post-Gazette had left to become a columnist. Keidan had put me on the Pitt beat and I covered the Panthers basketball team in 1984-85 and enjoyed it. Next up was Pitt football. It was a good beat back then.
So I turned him down, making sure he was OK with that. Yeah, he said, because we’ll be able to attract some good candidates for the Steelers beat.
Except, he did not. One guy took it and then backed out. Keidan didn’t hire someone until a few weeks before the Steelers headed to camp. In the meantime, I covered Pitt camp in Edinboro in what would be Foge Fazio’s last season as coach there.
Keidan was disappointed with the performance of the guy he hired in camp and with about four or five days left at Saint Vincent, he called me and told me I was going to cover the Steelers. So, after returning from Pitt camp, I went virtually straight to Latrobe.
In my first day there, the Steelers did something I have never seen since (or before, that I could recall). They cut their third-round draft pick in camp, rookie defensive back Liffort Hobley of LSU. I wanted to talk to him but he was still in the dorm collecting his final summer pay. I had no idea what he looked like.
Ron Cook, then covering the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Press after serving as my competition yet friend on the Maulers beat, told me to look for a guy with big ears. So every time a player exited the dorm, I looked at his ears. “No, not big enough,’’ I would tell myself. “No, that’s not him.’’
At last, a player with oversized ears came out of the Bonaventure dorm and I started toward him calling out, “Liffort, Liffort!” I did not get far because someone grabbed my shirt from behind and tugged me back. It was Cook.
“That’s not him, that’s Elton Veals,” Cook said, a save every bit as clutch as Mark Melancon ever delivered.
Veals was a fullback who played in 1984 and was cut that summer, with a body nothing like that of a defensive back. But he did have some big ears. They also were not nearly as big as Hobley’s, who had dishpan ears. I eventually caught up with him, saw him actually in the dorm upstairs as he was leaving and had a brief and nearly breathless interview with him as we raced downstairs.
That was my welcome to the Steelers beat moment at Saint Vincent. Now onto some others:
--- Roster cuts can produce all kinds of emotions, especially when they are done enmasse as they were in training camps past. They no longer make the cuts during camp, but years ago they would have a series of cutdown dates, more than two near the start of the regular season as they have today.
The Steelers often would do them very early in the morning to allow the players to leave without the benefit of talking to the media about it. I learned quickly to get up early and look for them. Since the players and the media stayed in the same dorm, you could merely watch who left at 7 a.m. or so.
That’s what I was doing in 1986 when some cuts were made. I positioned myself by a window overlooking the campus and the players’ parking lot with my binoculars. One player cut was linebacker Cam Jacobs, a fifth-round draft pick from Kentucky in 1985. He walked down the lane to get his car, drove it to the front of the door and packed his belongings.
When he was finished packing, he drove off down the lane. About 200 yards away, he stopped, turned around and drove back. He drove right up to the front of Bonaventure Hall, opened the driver’s door, looked up at the dorm and then spit a big one on the ground. He slammed the door shut and drove off.
That was the lead to my cut story that day and remains one of my favorites.
--- That same year, 1986, the Steelers drafted a quarterback in the third round, Bubby Brister. Thank you, because he would be a gift that kept on giving to the media right up to his end with the Steelers in 1992.
I had written a long story on Brister in the spring, meeting with him in his room at what was then the Hilton Hotel, so I knew him a little bit by that summer’s training camp.
He held out for a week or so before signing and reporting to camp in the evening and the coaches would not let him speak to the media until they were done with their meetings that night. Gene Collier and I waited patiently in the Bonaventure Hall room of PR man Dan Edwards and we each cracked open a beer. Finally, it seemed about 10 p.m. that Brister was free and arrived as requested to Edwards’ room.
The young quarterback from Louisiana took one look at our beers and asked if he could have one. “But don’t tell my daddy,’’ he said believably. He grabbed one out of the cooler. It was a Sam Adams bottle and as anyone who ever had one knows, they do not come with a twist-off cap, and we did not have a bottle opener.
“That’s OK,” Brister said, and put the edge of the bottle on Edwards’ desk with his left hand and slammed his right hand down on it as the cap neatly sprung off the bottle.
Great, I told him, I could see the headlines now: “Rookie quarterback breaks right hand opening beer bottle with reporters in PR man’s room on first day of camp.’’
It did not happen, but Brister would go on to become one of my favorite players ever to cover with the Steelers for the colorful way he played, acted and spoke.
--- Another Brister story. Bonaventure Hall was famously not air conditioned and by the time Brister arrived in 1986, that was getting old because most other NFL teams had air conditioning for their sleeping quarters at training camp.
Brister later roomed with running back Merril Hoge, who arrived in 1987. It did not take long for the colorful quarterback to decide he wanted air conditioning. He brought a window air conditioner with him. The windows at old Bonaventure were not normal ones you have in your house or maybe anywhere else. Brister gerry-rigged that thing in with Duct tape and a whole lot of other things, including plenty of elbow grease.
He had his air conditioning. In the process, though, he broke the window. Saint Vincent officials kindly told Brister and the rest of the players that if they wanted to bring portable air conditioners with them the following summer camp, the college would assign someone to put them in for them so they would not break any more windows.
It was the beginning of the end of players having fans in their windows to keep “cool” and the beginning of the air conditioning era. Brister was a trailblazer in many ways! Today, the players stay in newer Rooney Hall, which has central air.
--- Here’s a Myron Cope story because everyone loves Myron Cope stories and there are so many good ones.
One camp, the Steelers moved Cope’s room further down the hall and away from many of us and I have no idea why. Cope wasn’t happy either. Anyway, all the ballboys were in rooms around Cope, so it could have been someone’s idea to torture the bombastic broadcaster. Ballboys generally are in their teens, early to high school seniors.
There were several community bathrooms on each floor and Cope shared one with the ballboys. One morning, he went to the bathroom and had apparently had enough of what he saw as a discourteous non-flushing of the toilets. He shouted down the hallway: “All ballboys front and center, NOW!”
Like military cadets, they quickly responded and stood straight up in front of their dorm rooms in the hall. Cope proceeded to dress them down, walking up and down like a tiny drill instructor. He told them that real men flush toilets after themselves and if they wanted to become real men, they would too.
Cope reported there was no problem in the bathrooms after that, that the boys-who-would-be-men cleaned up after themselves.
--- I have more stories from past training camps I want to write about here, but this is getting long so I will sprinkle them into some blogs as we go along in this 50th training camp at Saint Vincent.