Steelers fullback-turned-tight end Will Johnson looks for his blocking assignment at training camp practice at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was 37 years ago Larry Brown successfully made the transition from tight end to tackle in the middle of the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s. Brown, who caught a touchdown pass in Super Bowl IX, became a tackle in his seventh NFL season in 1977 and played another seven years after the move. He was the starting right tackle in Super Bowl XIV and made a Pro Bowl in 1982 before retiring in 1984.
Third-year pro Will Johnson hopes he can make a seamless transition to another position this summer in hopes of extending his career. Johnson played his first two seasons as a fullback, but has been moved to tight end, and if he wants to remain with the Steelers he must prove he is a capable tight end by the end of training camp.
The Steelers are not eliminating the fullback from their offense, but they are asking Johnson to learn the tight end position because they want more flexibility in the offense and on their roster.
The Steelers used a fullback about half as much last season as they did in 2012. Johnson played just 173 offensive snaps in 2013, an average of 11 snaps per game. The Steelers used Johnson on 366 snaps as a rookie, or about 23 snaps per game.
Johnson no longer attends meetings with the running backs. He is strictly a tight end who will be asked to play fullback on the rare occasions the Steelers use one.
"It's an adjustment for him, but he's making the transition nice," tight ends coach James Daniel said. "We're trying to teach him the same things that tight ends do so we have more flexibility with our personnel."
Playing tight end is not a foreign concept for Johnson, who played the position at West Virginia. He was recruited by Rich Rodriguez to play receiver for the Mountaineers. After Rodriguez left to coach Michigan, new coach Bill Stewart moved Johnson to tight end, where he played the final three seasons of his college career.
"My skill set brings a lot to the table," Johnson said. "The transition is going smooth because I once was a receiver. I've done tight end stuff, H-back stuff. I think it's all working out pretty well. I'm still doing a lot of my workload I had with the fullback stuff. I'm just doing more H-back stuff, trying to get involved more with the passing game."
The biggest adjustment for Johnson is learning the tight end passing routes. He is slowly digesting the information and hopes to have it down by the time camp ends.
"The workload has definitely increased," Johnson said. "It's just a matter of me learning the minor details on the routes. It will all come with time. I don't feel a lot of pressure. I'm just taking it a day at a time, trying to learn as much as I can, trying to minimize my mistakes.
"I know it's a process. The biggest thing is me staying in my playbook. Once I get the confidence of the coaches and know the details, they'll feel more comfortable increasing my workload. Right now it's a process."
Veteran tight end Heath Miller knows what Johnson is going through. A quarterback in high school, Miller switched to tight end after his freshman season at Virginia.
"Will has a little bit of an H-back background from college, but it's impressive how well he does at the line of scrimmage considering he's been exclusively in the backfield the past couple of years," Miller said. "He's done a great job. For us, it's good to be in the meeting room with him and talk over certain situations. It's been great."
Miller said understanding the route concepts will come with time. Johnson has showed off his soft hands since his rookie season, but all he ever had to do was go to the right or left flat to catch the ball. Now he is being asked to read coverages and run deeper routes.
"The more he does it the better he'll understand coverages and how to release off the line of scrimmage," Miller said. "From the running back position, you're not asked to do too much in the passing game. It's all short, intermediate stuff. You don't have to read a lot of coverage coming out of the backfield."
Once Johnson is comfortable with all aspects of his new position, he can become a versatile piece for the coaches. The Steelers can use Johnson in the regular offense and when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger operates the no-huddle to keep defenses honest.
"His job will be multiple," Daniel said. "He'll do a lot of things. He'll be in the backfield. He'll be on the line. He'll be split out. He'll be in a lot of places."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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