Rookie DE Tuitt closing in on starting job


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Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt are more than just a pair of high-end draft choices who were brought in to increase the speed and athleticism of the Steelers defense. They also represent what has been a steady infusion of youth designed to transform a unit that had been derided as old and slow.

But they are more than that.

Shazier and Tuitt -- the 15th and 46th overall selections in the NFL draft -- are roommates at training camp, sharing a dormitory room that certainly is not big enough to house their enormous potential.

They met working out at the IMG training facility in Bradenton, Fla., before the draft and have been bonded since. Even if there are some minor annoyances.

"Stephon snores," Shazier said. "I know I snore, but he snores bad, man."

Shazier (6-1, 237) is the smallish but mercurial-fast inside linebacker from Ohio State who likely can outrun most, if not all, of the cornerbacks and safeties. Tuitt (6-5, 303) is the physically sculpted defensive end from Notre Dame who has caused defensive line coach John Mitchell to rave about his talents and compare him to Aaron Smith.

Both are already on the fast track in the Steelers defense. Shazier was handed the starting job on the first day of offseason training activities. After two weeks of training camp, Tuitt is ready to be given a similar nod at left end.

Together, they help form the future of Dick LeBeau's defense, a unit that will begin its journey tonight when the Steelers open their preseason against the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J.

"It's really exciting just to know everyone is trusting in you and giving you the opportunity to gain that trust and see what you can do," Shazier said. "So, when you go out there, you can take full advantage and show the guys what you can do so they can trust you."

Shazier's first moment with his new teammates -- at least on the game-day field -- likely will have to wait a week. He is not expected to play against the Giants because of a right knee injury that has kept him out of practice all week.

He will be replaced by Sean Spence, who is making his first appearance in two years since a devastating knee injury in the 2012 preseason nearly ended his career.

Tuitt, though, is likely to start at end because an injury to nose tackle Steve McLendon (concussion) will force newcomer Cam Thomas to slide from end to the middle of the 3-4 front.

Tuitt, however has been on such a rapid ascent that a permanent promotion to the first-team defense likely is just around the corner.

"It's just a matter of time," Mitchell said. "He has all the tools. He needs to play. Like all rookies, they got to play.

"You can simulate a game in practice all you want, but the game is a lot faster, and things are going to happen. This game is a lot faster than he saw at Notre Dame. He has all the tools. And he hasn't gone against other good athletes. It won't be the 3s and 4s he's going against. He can gauge his own ability that way."

When the Steelers drafted Tuitt in the second round, Mitchell unabashedly gushed about his size, athleticism, ability and potential -- a rare moment of exuberance for the long-time line coach who rarely heaps such lofty praise on a rookie.

Once he arrived, Mitchell was even more impressed with Tuitt's work habits and commitment off the field.

"I think he's studying hard in the classroom right now," Mitchell said. "He's spending extra time, watching extra tape. Every night, he's the last guy in there. He doesn't like making mental mistakes."

Tuitt's desire to excel is no accident, and one of the reasons the Steelers were attracted to him. But it also fueled by what Tuitt feels was a first-round snub in the NFL draft when he lasted until the 14th pick in the second.

Tuitt had a monster sophomore season in 2012 at Notre Dame when he recorded 12 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and had a 77-yard fumble return for touchdown. But his draft stock dropped last season because of offseason hernia surgery and foot injury that limited his movement and caused him to gain 20 pounds.

"I got a chip on my shoulder -- the size of King Kong -- and that's how I'm going to keep it," Tuitt said.

"It's not just because of that. I always wanted to be great. But it also helps drive me somewhat."

"Stephon was supposed to go way higher than he ended up going," Shazier said. "I'm happy he's on this team. We want to use it to our advantage."

Tuitt has looked so good at training camp he was inserted in the first-team defense last weekend to see how he would perform there. He was so excited about the promotion he called his mother after practice to tell her.

"This is a sport where the best players get to go out there," Tuitt said. "For them to give me a chance and see what I can do with a group of guys who have been playing for years, for this team and other teams, is a great opportunity."

It likely won't be long until the move is permanent.

"He's a raw talent right now, but he has all the talent in the world," said defensive end Cam Heyward. "You just love the intangibles -- his character, his ability to work hard. I'm excited to see what he's going to do in the preseason and take into the regular season."

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


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