Steelers' rookie receiver proving to be a fast learner

Rookie cornerback Keenan Lewis has known Mike Wallace since the two were growing up in the Algiers section of New Orleans, so he knows how fast the rookie receiver from the University of Mississippi can move. And, because the best friends are roommates at training camp after each was drafted in the third round by the Steelers, Lewis can refute any notion that Wallace is so fast he can turn off the light switch and be in bed before the room gets dark.

But, man, is he fast.

"He's definitely the fastest I've run against," said Lewis, a 6-foot, 206-pound cornerback from Oregon State. "I pretty much know how fast he is now so I know how many yards to get back when I'm covering him."

"He can fly," said tight end Heath Miller. "Just one day I wish I could run like that to see what it feels like to run past people."

"He's one of fastest I've ever run against," said cornerback Ike Taylor, generally acknowledged by his teammates as the fastest Steelers player. "Nobody's really running like him right now."

Wallace was the second fastest receiver in the draft, behind Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey, after being timed at the NFL Combine in 4.28 and 4.32 in the 40-yard dash. At Ole Miss, he said he was once timed in a school-record 4.21. But it's not just his speed that is making the Steelers take notice at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.

After publicly being tweaked by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for dropping passes on deep routes, Wallace has made several leaping, twisting catches in practice -- including one in the back of the end zone Friday night at Latrobe's Memorial Stadium.

What's more, his willingness to catch passes in traffic is another reason the offensive coaches have not ruled him out as the No. 3 receiver in the offense, though the job appears to belong to Limas Sweed, last year's second-round draft choice.

"He's one of those guys who will go in what I call the combat zone -- inside those numbers, between the hashes," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "He's not afraid to go in the combat zone. It takes special cats to go in there. A lot of guys like to play out there by those numbers, especially those fast guys, and he hasn't shied away at all."

Wallace is being used at just one position in training camp -- flanker, or Z-receiver -- because Arians wants him to get comfortable at that spot before trying to learn the other positions. When he gets to play in Thursday night's preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals, Wallace will likely be paired in tandem with Sweed, who will line at split end, or X-receiver.

"I'm getting better everyday understanding coverages," Wallace said. "There's been an adjustment to the speed of the game and it was a lot different learning a whole new scheme. But I feel like I'm getting better every day and I'm making strides."

Wallace said he had to make another adjustment, as well -- this one to Western Pennsylvania. Until training camp, Wallace said he has never been to the northeast part of the country.

"I never left the South before in my life," he said. "In college, as far as we came was Wake Forest or Missouri. We never really came too far. I've been to Ohio, but that was when I was 13 or 14 running AAU track. Other than that, I never came too far north. That's the biggest adjustment -- just getting used to the atmosphere."

Wallace's speed puts him in a rare atmosphere. He is faster than Nate Washington, who was the team's fastest receiver before leaving in free agency to sign with the Tennessee Titans. And he has not raced Taylor, a fellow native of Louisiana, who said he has been clocked between 4.2 and 4.3.

"Oh yeah, I can beat him," Taylor said.

"Maybe Ike," Wallace said, when asked if any of his new teammates can beat him. "Until we race, he got the title. I'll give it to him."

Lewis, who was drafted with the 96th overall pick in the draft, 12 spots lower than Wallace, isn't so sure.

"When he gets the ball in his hands and he starts running, that guy is just explosive," he said.

The Steelers, and everyone else, have definitely noticed.

"This kid is cutting out a nice little niche for himself," Arians said. "He's what we were hoping we would get -- a guy who can take the top off the coverage. But, as he becomes a better route-runner, we can use him more."

Gerry Dulac can be reached at . First Published August 11, 2009 4:00 AM


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