When the Steelers won Super Bowl XL after the 2005 season, Larry Foote, at 25, was the second-youngest starter on a veteran-laden defense. Only Troy Polamalu was younger.
As the Steelers approach the 2012 season, Foote finds himself in a much different role as one of the elder statesmen on a defense that has become younger after the departure of veterans such as Aaron Smith and James Farrior.
Foote, who will turn 32 next month, is charged with the tall task of replacing Farrior, his friend and mentor who started alongside him in the middle of the Steelers defense from 2004-09.
"When you're trying to replace a James Farrior and what he did for this defense the last decade ... those are big shoes to fill," Foote said during the first week of organized team activities at the team's South Side facility.
"Mainly, my game will take care of itself. I'll get guys lined up, being that rock for the defense, keeping them composed. Some of those special things Farrior brought to the table ... I'm going to try to emulate those intangibles the best I can."
That includes being one of the team's leading voices on the field and in the locker room. Farrior was the defensive captain and a player everyone on the team looked to for leadership. Look around the locker room now and there are plenty of veterans, but few are poised to take on the vocal role that has been a constant on this team dating to the days of Joey Porter.
Foote, a fourth-round draft choice from Michigan in 2002, wants to be that guy. He said it his job to pass on everything he has learned in the league to the younger players because he values what he was taught by Steelers veterans when he first came into the league.
"Day in day out, I'm just passing the torch," Foote said. "The Joey Porters, the Jason Gildons showed me when I got here you have to be a leader, you have to come to play. You have to talk and bring up the young guys. That's part of your job, pass it down."
Polamalu is not a vocal leader, but he is, in many ways, the heartbeat of the defense by virtue of the way he plays. He said the vocal leadership void left by Farrior will be hard to duplicate just as it was when Porter left after the '06 season.
"You hate to put that kind of load on Larry," Polamalu said. "You can't say that even James Farrior was going to be exactly the same kind of leader Joey was. And he wasn't. I'm sure Larry can be a leader on this defense, but he won't be the exact leader that James Farrior was, for sure."
Anytime there is a transition in leadership within a team, there are players to be won over. Foote said he has the veterans' respect, but he said he must prove himself to some of the younger defensive players.
The Steelers have several young players stepping into starting positions this season. Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward will vie to take over for Smith at defensive end. Keenan Lewis is looking to earn a job at cornerback after William Gay's departure.
"A lot of new guys, I have to earn their respect," Foote said. "Some of the guys who have been here a long time, they know what I can bring to the table. Some of the other guys, the Ziggy Hoods and Cam Heywards, I have to show them what time it is."
Foote has been a Steeler for 10 of his 11 NFL seasons. When it was evident first-round pick Lawrence Timmons was destined to replace him after '08, he signed with his hometown Detroit Lions as a free agent. He had a productive season as a starter for the Lions in '09, but, when the opportunity arose to return to the Steelers in '10, he jumped at it.
Foote spent the past two Steelers seasons as a reserve, but played well when he was asked to step in. Now, he is trying to prove he still has what it takes to be a full-time NFL starter. He will face some competition from third-year pro Stevenson Sylvester in training camp, but there is a reason defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau inserted Foote as Farrior's replacement in the OTAs.
When Timmons moved to the outside after James Harrison was injured in the middle of last season, Foote started five games and played well. He finished with 47 tackles on a unit that finished first in the league in total defense.
The expectations for the defense won't change this season, and Foote said it's nice to be counted on again in a larger role.
"Anytime this organization wants you to play for them and take the huddle, especially with this legendary defense, it's special," he said. "I have a great deal of confidence. A lot is expected. A lot will be given and a lot will be required. I'm just excited."Steelers
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.