Steelers rookie center Maurkice Pouncey protects the quarterback against the Lions Saturday at Heinz Field.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Not one rookie has become a regular starter since Mike Tomlin became Steelers coach in 2007. That may soon change.
Maurkice Pouncey, the team's No. 1 draft choice in April, ran with the first team at center Monday in practice, sharing time with two-year starter Justin Hartwig. The two also shared time with the second team.
Afterward, Tomlin made no bones about it; Pouncey is competing to start at center after he elevated his status with his play at that position Saturday night against the Detroit Lions. Pouncey has been practicing at right guard and center, but remained exclusively at center Monday.
"We'll nail down a job for him at some point, but to this juncture, he's been very impressive with how he's handled the responsibility of playing both and really playing both very well," Tomlin said.
Sean Kugler, the Steelers' new line coach, loved what he saw from Pouncey Saturday night after he opened the second quarter by replacing Hartwig with the first team.
"It was our first chance to see him in competition in the real battle and he performed well," Kugler said. "He graded high, he played, he finished. He got some work with the ones and took the bulk of the work with the twos. We're going to try to get him a little more work with the ones and see how he responds to that. It was just to see how he responded and he responded well.
"He split time today and it's due to where he's at right now. If he continues to work, he'll have an opportunity."
Shortly after the Steelers selected Pouncey with the 18th overall pick in the draft, Tomlin announced he would put him at right guard as a rookie. This, even though Pouncey won the Rimington Trophy at Florida last season as the nation's best center.
Tomlin explained why.
"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 in April.
But it became clear very early in training camp that Pouncey, who started 39 of 41 games at Florida, could handle the calls at center and now he'll have a chance to become the first regular rookie starter for the Steelers since tight end Heath Miller in 2005.
"He has proven me quite wrong in that area, which is good," Tomlin said after practice Monday. "Better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed, and we were probably erring on the side of conservatism when we made that statement."
They weren't so conservative Monday talking about Pouncey. One play universally cited from Saturday night, occurred on Isaac Redman's 31-yard run.
"He had a pretty good play on that run," Kugler said. "He was an open-space blocker, knocked his linebacker down and probably hustled 35 yards downfield and got an additional block.
"That's the type of effort we're looking for. He brings that and he gives that type of energy on every play. He may not do it perfectly but he's always in there in the mix. That's why he's here. He played that way in college, he was well coached in college and he really does a good job."
After practice, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger asked if he could take some snaps behind Pouncey because the two really have not had much time with each other, even during spring drills.
The position is his natural one and he seems to be more comfortable playing center than guard, even if he will be making the calls rather than receive them.
"You have to go out there and read defenses and make all the points for the guys, so it takes a lot," Pouncey said. "I'm doing good right now. I need to get a lot better, I ain't going to lie to you."