Steelers notebook: Gilbert determined to fill Starks' shoes at LT


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If consistency and a solid left tackle are necessities for a good offensive line, the Steelers had both last season with Max Starks.

A case easily could be made he was their best offensive lineman in 2012, even though center Maurkice Pouncey was named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl. What's more, Starks was the only offensive lineman to take every snap last season -- a rarity on a line that seems to be juggled annually because of injuries.

But Starks was part of a house-cleaning in an offseason that saw the Steelers get rid of three of their top six offensive linemen, leaving what is considered the most important position on the line to be handled by Marcus Gilbert, a second-round draft choice in 2011 who has played mostly on the right side.

Gilbert also is coming off a nasty ankle injury in which the tendon tore away from the bone, causing him to miss 11 games and eventually be placed on injured reserve.

"They know what I'm capable of from what they've seen from me in the past," Gilbert said. "To be that left tackle, they have to have a lot of confidence, and I feel like they have that in me."

The Steelers have not always been sure what they have in Gilbert.

They were so upset with his conditioning and attitude in his first training camp that they had Pouncey, his friend and college teammate at Florida, try to motivate him. It was Pouncey who recommended the Steelers draft Gilbert.

Gilbert started 13 games as a rookie after right tackle Willie Colon sustained a season-ending injury in the opening game, but there were times when the coaches wondered about his durability and ability to play through nagging injuries.

Gilbert changed some of that opinion in 2012 when he injured his knee in the second quarter of the season opener in Denver and did not return. But he played the following week against the Jets and started the next four games until the serious ankle injury that ended his season.

Despite that, the Steelers did not re-sign Starks and handed the job to Gilbert, who prefers playing left tackle rather than the right side.

"The quarterback has to trust me," Gilbert said. "If he doesn't have your trust and he doesn't trust you, I wouldn't be in the position I'm in right now."

Gilbert said he is fully recovered from his ankle injury and worked hard to come to training camp in great shape. But it didn't appear that way Friday after the annual run test when he dropped to the turf and had to be attended to by several teammates. He eventually was carted from the field.

Gilbert said his body was cramping and he had no difficulty making it through the conditioning test.

"I could have walked off," Gilbert said. "I've been training very hard this summer to come to camp in tremendous shape. I'm ready to be the left tackle. I know what I'm capable of doing."

Gilbert is listed at 6 feet 6, 330 pounds, but the Steelers had him lose weight in the offseason because they want their offensive linemen to be lighter, more athletic and able to get around the edge. That is all part of wanting to implement some zone-blocking schemes in their attack.

"He's been working his butt off this season and I think everybody sees that," Pouncey said. "Coach told him to come in and lose weight and he did it. He looks good."

Big Ben looks good in return

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, saying his right knee does not bother him, took his regular turn in the first full practice of camp and said he felt fine.

Roethlisberger did not appear to have any difficulty throwing, though he did underthrow wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders on a couple go-routes.

Roethlisberger had cleanup surgery in his right knee just before minicamp. Coach Mike Tomlin said Friday his quarterback experienced some discomfort in his knee, which is why he held him out of the run test.

"It was his first day, I thought he looked good," Tomlin said after the afternoon practice. "I thought everybody looked good. But I'm not rushing to judge. It's still football in shorts for us."

The Steelers cannot begin practicing with pads until Monday.

Rain dampers day for fans

Less than an hour after they arrived on the field for the first full practice of camp, the players were chased back to the locker room because of a severe weather warning. Fans also were cleared from Chuck Noll Field and told to seek shelter.

Approximately 45 minutes later, the players returned to complete practice, but with a much smaller crowd.

Earlier in the day, the Steelers completed their morning workout in a heavy rain, minus the thunder and lighting.

"They were able to maintain their focus and have a productive outing," Tomlin said of the players. "It was great to be on the field and great to see the fans here. I'm sorry the weather prevented them from enjoying it in its entirety."

Learning curve for Wheaton

The coaches are eager to see rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton because he was unable to work out with the team in the offseason due to rules restricting underclassmen.

And Wheaton, a third-round choice from Oregon State, is eager to catch up with the rest of his teammates after missing so much.

"Getting chemistry with the guys, working with Ben, learning the playbook ... getting to do all that stuff," Wheaton said. "I learned it, but I haven't heard it in the huddle and there's a difference. I'm very excited."

It's possible the Steelers could use Wheaton in much the same manner they employed Chris Rainey, who was released in January, in 2012 -- lining him up at running back or motioning him to the quarterback. In addition to catching 227 passes for 2,994 yards in 49 games at Oregon State, Wheaton also rushed 83 times for 631 yards and five touchdowns.

"I'm not sure yet," Wheaton said. "I've been told to learn multiple positions and that's all I've been doing. I guess we'll see when I get on the field."

Steelers - mobilehome

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.


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