A hand-written sign on top of nose tackle Casey Hampton's locker reads "Coach Hamp," a light-hearted poke at Hampton's new-found status as the oldest member of the Steelers defense.
Hampton, a five-time Pro Bowler, will be 35 when the regular season begins Sept. 9 in Denver, and his goal is to be ready to play that game after recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
For now, he is playing the role of coach at Steelers minicamp, at least to the newest member of the defensive line and the player who ultimately could be his replacement -- rookie Alameda Ta'amu.
"It's easier than when I came to rookie camp," Ta'amu said. "I have Hamp and [Steve]) McLendon out there helping me out so I can get my technique right and play this defense right compared to one I had at [Washington]."
"At UW, as a defensive lineman, you want to shoot, get deep in your gaps. Here, you just want to stay on your man and play gap defense. You get out of your gap, you mess up the whole defense. It's hard, but I'll learn it."
Ta'amu, the team's fourth-round draft choice, is a 6-foot-2, 348-pound nose tackle who played at the University of Washington. Like Hampton, he is thick, powerful and harder to move than a grand piano.
But, until he sees Ta'amu perform at training camp, Hampton will not evaluate the player who is expected to be his heir apparent.
"He listens, he's willing to learn, but I don't judge guys until they put the pads on," Hampton said Wednesday between practice sessions. "He's a big kid, though. He looks powerful, but, like I said, we'll see when we get the pads on."
Hampton took a pay cut to return for one final season with the team after having ACL surgery on his left knee Jan. 27. He has been doing some resistance running at minicamp and said his rehabilitation is right on schedule.
"I'm where I need to be," Hampton said. "I feel my goal is to be ready for the regular season."
With one day of minicamp remaining, McLendon has been lining at nose tackle with the first-team defense and Ta'amu has been the backup. That is OK with Ta'amu, who is just trying to learn a different style than the one he employed in college.
Ta'amu did not attend the offseason training activities because of NFL rules that prohibit attendance from players whose college class hasn't graduated.
"It's real cool to be here," said Ta'amu, a native of Samoa. "It feels like I'm already part of this team. The veterans are already helpful. No one is trying to put you on the spot.
"I just want to help out. Whenever McLendon or Hampton get tired, I'll be there to back them up."
The Steelers defensive line has a decidedly different -- and younger -- look at minicamp. Not only is Hampton sidelined, but defensive end Aaron Smith and longtime backup nose tackle Chris Hoke retired after last season.
"It's definitely different when you've been with guys for 10-plus years," Hampton said. "That's the nature of the beast. That's how it is. I've seen a lot of guys come and go. I'm one of the old guys now."
Ta'amu loves having Hampton around because he considers himself a similar model of nose tackle.
"Hampton and big guys like [Vince] Wilfork [of New England], someone I can compare myself to, someone who can eat up the middle," Ta'amu said. "To have him here, to be like a leader and mentor to me, is a good thing."
Maybe he is Coach Hamp.Steelers
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published June 14, 2012 4:00 AM