The Steelers selected Maurkice Pouncey in the first round of the draft earlier this year and took little time to announce him as their center of the future. The question after two days of training camp has become: Is the future now?
While Pouncey has the coaching staff's official stamp as competitor to start at right guard, it became quickly evident that he was the most talented center in camp after his first two practices Saturday, which went well.
But he must overcome a hamstring injury that occurred in a most unusual way Sunday morning. Pouncey arrived Friday night on a flight from Florida, leaving after his agent came to terms on a five-year contract with the Steelers earlier that day. He reported about 45 minutes after midnight and missed the run conditioning test and his first meetings because of it.
So, coach Mike Tomlin had him go through the run tests Saturday morning and he reportedly passed. But for some reason, he had to endure more conditioning tests Sunday morning and that's when he injured his hamstring.
He's only supposed to miss a few days, but it's an injury that probably did not need to happen. Before it did, people in the organization were talking about how they had not seen this kind of play by a center against nose tackles since Dermontti Dawson retired a decade ago. Pouncey, who lined up at center and right guard in the two Saturday practices at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, moves nose tackles back. He gets low, gets leverage and away they go as if on roller skates. His feet move like no center since Dawson.
Of course, it's early and he has not had a chance to go against perhaps the premier nose tackle in the league yet because Casey Hampton spent his second consecutive day of camp tending to his own hamstring injury. But when they both heal, that day will come.
"We'll see; he's a real good player, real big," said Pouncey, who is listed at 6 feet 4, 304 pounds.
The goal against Hampton, who is conservatively listed at 325, is the same as the others for Pouncey, to move him out.
"I hope so, that's the plan. We're definitely going to go at it, heck yeah, and my plan is not go get pushed back."
The Steelers could also find themselves ripping up their own plan for Pouncey, or at least adjusting it. He has not played guard since his freshman season at Florida and is more suited to center. At guard, he has to reach to get to the defensive tackles. At center, he usually has a man right over him -- especially in the 3-4 defenses -- and that is where he excels.
Justin Hartwig has been the team's starting center the past two seasons and gave them a lift in their Super Bowl run after Sean Mahan failed miserably in 2007. The Steelers even signed him to a new contract last summer that runs through 2012. Hartwig was limited in the preseason after having shoulder surgery and he has to prove he can again be effective.
So while the clear opening remains at right guard, there have been internal discussions on the Steelers already about whether to just move Pouncey to center now rather than wait a year to get him started. To be sure, Dawson played his rookie season at right guard before embarking on a Hall of Fame-like career for the Steelers in his second season. But the center in Dawson's rookie season was a guy named Mike Webster.
The Steelers staff has an open mind on putting Pouncey at center and letting someone else play right guard, which is why he lined up Saturday at both positions.
"Whatever they want me to play I'm ready for," Pouncey said.
One reason Tomlin cited for starting Pouncey at guard was he did not want to overwhelm him because of all the calls the center must make.
"As a young guy coming in, it's probably easier mentally to play guard because it's more receiving information as opposed to giving it," Tomlin said after they drafted him.
Since that day, they have found that Pouncey picked up things quickly and they now believe he can handle those calls.
"I mean, at center, I have to know everything that's going on," Pouncey said. "Every call, I can't mess up then. There's a lot you have to learn, you have to call out the mike [middle linebacker] every play even though they're not going to him. There's just things you have to learn, all the calls and everything to help the other guys out."
His coaches believe he can do it. Now it's just a matter of whether they let him do it now or wait until next season.
Players, coaches happy to see five-time Pro Bowler Flozell Adams on the team, see Steelers notebook, Page D-2.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published August 2, 2010 4:00 AM