On the Steelers: Stephon Tuitt could end long gap on defensive line

The previous time John Mitchell had a rookie win a starting job on his defensive line, Steelers fans were still dreaming of One for the Thumb. It was 2001 and they had not made the playoffs in the previous three seasons.

Casey Hampton started 11 games that year and became a fixture at nose tackle for 12 seasons.

They now have not made the playoffs in the past two seasons and they again turned to their defensive line high in the draft with second-round choice Stephon Tuitt. They can only hope he has the kind of longevity and effect on them that Hampton did.

Tuitt does have a good opportunity to do something that even Hampton could not do. He could start in the first game of his rookie season.

A gaping hole remained at end on the emerging 2014 Steelers defense before the draft. Cameron Heyward will start at one, but they lost two others in free agency in Ziggy Hood and Al Woods, and the Steelers never made a play to re-sign free agent Brett Keisel.

There is a clear path for Tuitt to become the Steelers' first rookie defensive lineman to start a season opener in the 21 seasons John Mitchell has been their line coach.

Usually reserved when talking about rookies, Mitchell opened up about Tuitt, a junior who started the past two seasons at Notre Dame.

"We look for this guy to be here for a long time. He's a guy that can do a lot of things for us. He can push the pocket. He can play the run. He can get off blocks and he can get to the ball. We got a good football player."

Mitchell did not go so far as to predict Tuitt will start, but he did say had he not had sports hernia surgery and foot surgery, "he probably would have been in the top 10 guys drafted. We feel like we got a steal in the second round with our pick."

Tuitt, given Aaron Smith's old number 91, showed a knowledge of those great Steelers defenses that he wants to emulate.

"The history of that defense is tremendous," Tuitt said, "and I can't wait to help put it back up there."

It seemed forever that Mitchell's line consisted of Smith, Hampton and Keisel. There was little room for young players. Hood took over when Smith was injured and then Heyward bumped him aside in 2013. Steve McLendon took over for Hampton after the Pro Bowl nose tackle was not re-signed. Now Keisel is gone.

It's a new era everywhere on defense, including a complete makeover of the line.

"I had some guys that were here for a long, long time," Mitchell said. "Guys who played for 10 or 12 years. And then you lose them and have to start over. A lot of those guys that I had, we grew up together. With the transition now, you're getting some young guys and you're getting some guys who do not have a lot of playing time under the belt and it's going to take a little while to develop them."

With someone such as Tuitt and that big hole at end, it could very well be on the job training.

Rookie camp concludes

The Steelers wrapped up their rookie camp Sunday away from the prying eyes of the media, who were not invited to attend the final day.

Although veteran players too were banned from the weekend's activities, many of the rookies worked out with the veterans last week before the official rookie camp. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, for example, threw passes Tuesday to some of the rookies, including fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant.

There are no more scheduled activities until after Memorial Day when the official but voluntary spring practices start with everyone invited to attend.

The coaches will evaluate those rookie practices, and could make some adjustments to their roster. They had 20 players on tryouts at this camp, which is basically so they can hold 11-on-11 practices. A year ago, they signed linebacker Terence Garvin after he attended on a tryout.

Suggested changes

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, a member of the NFL's competition committee, would like to see the eligibility of players to participate in rookie camp expanded by the NFL.

For example, even though they were part of the same draft class a year ago and neither played a snap in a regular-season game, wide receiver Justin Brown attended camp but quarterback Landry Jones could not. That is because Brown spent the entire season on the practice squad and Jones was on the 53-man roster, although he spent every game on the inactive list.

The rookies and Jones might have benefited more had he been able to take snaps and throw passes over the weekend instead of one or two of the tryout quarterbacks on hand.

"I believe that guys that want an opportunity to work and need an opportunity to work should get an opportunity to work," Tomlin said. "So anytime you're talking about more opportunities for young guys to grow and develop as players, I'll be for that."

Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.

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