Rookie's dynamic combination of brains, brawn bowls over observers
January 14, 2011 5:00 AM
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Maurkice Pouncey: "I just love this game, man. I don't want to do anything else in life besides football."
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For all the statistical fodder available in sports, there are no charts, graphs or numbers of any kind, to illustrate what makes Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers' Pro Bowl rookie center, so special.
There is only the growing list of superlative sentiments expressed by those around him, and those tend to fit into three categories:
1. He is strikingly athletic for an interior lineman.
2. He is intelligent and mature beyond his years.
3. And, as Ben Roethlisberger offered, "He's all that and everything you can think of. He's the main cog in our offense, he's one of the best in the game at his position, and he's going to be the best."
A couple of months before the Steelers made Pouncey their first-round draft pick last year, offensive line coach Sean Kugler was trying to learn more about him during the NFL's scouting combine. Not on the field, but at a dry-erase board.
Kugler scribbled several full offensive plays on the board, then hurriedly wiped each away and turned to Pouncey.
"What did I just write?" Kugler asked.
Pouncey walked to the board, took the marker and drew up each play as if it were his own.
"It was pretty extensive, and he handled it really well," Kugler recalled. "But that was kind of confirming what we already knew. You could see when he was at Florida that the guy doesn't make many mistakes."
That reputation followed Pouncey throughout his career at the University of Florida, where he majored in social and behavioral sciences, was one of only two true freshmen to start for coach Urban Meyer, and won the Rimington Trophy as the NCAA's top center.
He stands 6 feet 4, 304 pounds, but his biggest asset apparently is under the helmet. Teammates say he is relentless in film study, a leader on the field and -- maybe most impressive for a rookie -- unfazed by it all.
"He's been consistently better than any rookie I've ever been around," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Ever."
"For Maurkice to do what he's done already ... it's something I haven't seen in this game in a very long time," 13-year veteran tackle Flozell Adams said. "And I'm not saying that because he's my teammate. I'm giving credit where it's due. His awareness, his instincts are so good. If we have something that needs to be changed, right before the play, he'll get it done."
Adams shook his head.
"Sky's the limit for this one. You think he's good now? He hasn't learned anything yet."
"You have to be able to put time in, watch defensive fronts, relay that to the rest of the line," injured tackle Max Starks said. "All of our movement, all of our calls stem from his initial decision. To be sharp and put us in the right position is first and foremost. And he gets that done."
By Kugler's playbook, Pouncey is "responsible for all fronts, making all the line calls, setting the protections, any audibles or adjustments. He's totally in charge. Ben's in charge of the entire show, but he's an assistant to Ben. That's Maurkice's job, and he does it well."
The center's role might seem like a small slice of the game, if only because so few notice him while following the ball. But, as Roethlisberger said, "It means a lot to us, every call he makes up there. He sees the whole field."
Seriously as Pouncey seems to take his work, that is exactly how seriously he does not take himself off the field. He looks like the life of the party along the wall that houses the Steelers' linemen in the locker room, roaming from stall to stall with give-and-take, playful and otherwise.
"I just love this game, man," Pouncey said, smiling. "I don't want to do anything else in life besides football. One day, if it ever comes to that, I don't know what I'll do. I just love it. It's crazy, man. Anybody who doesn't know it should know: Maurkice Pouncey is coming to play football."
Try to get him to talk about his football smarts, and one will get this instead: "All I can say is I love it. I do."
What about achieving so much for a rookie, a rarity for an NFL lineman?
"It just shows the caliber of team I'm on. I didn't do this by myself. All the guys around me," he added, motioning to a few teammates. "They had their hand in the pot, helping me out. When I've needed help or needed something explained, they've been there for me."
From the sound of it, that help seldom is necessary. And that includes Pouncey being comfortable in the built-in role as leader of the line.
"He has to be the leader because that's the center position, whether he's a rookie or 12-year guy," Starks said. "Now, if he's unsure, he can look to his guards for help. But he still has to be the leader of our group. And he is."
Pouncey is huge in most walks of life, but not so much for an NFL center -- his size is about average. What separates him physically is his athleticism.
It did not take long for Pouncey to separate himself in that regard in Latrobe.
He entered training camp as a challenger to Trai Essex at right guard. A week later, after some sizzling work in alternating snaps at center, he was splitting repetitions with Justin Hartwig, the starter when the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2008. By the time it was done, the team cut Hartwig.
"I remember they came to me before one practice and said I'd go half center, half guard reps, just to try to work me in," Pouncey recalled. "I had a great practice that day."
"It wasn't very hard to see," Kugler concurred.
And this was about more than memorizing plays.
Kugler describes Pouncey's physical traits just as glowingly: "He's got great feet, great balance, functionally strong, strong hands, he can handle the bigger nose tackles through leverage. He can get under, play with good base and balance."
"He's so athletic and quick that it catches a lot of guys off guard," Starks said. "Because of that quickness, it allows him to be more powerful with his explosion into guys. At the same time, you'll see him blocking a second-level defender like a linebacker, getting out on screens, potentially blocking two defenders, or cutting off a lane to try to open it up for a receiver."
What about a simple one-on-one?
"He can hold his own," Starks said. "He's not the biggest guy, but he has great technique. He's not going to sit there and go one-on-one with Shaun Rodgers."
Rodgers, a defensive lineman with the Cleveland Browns, is nicknamed "Big Baby" for his 350 pounds.
"But Maurkice will stay low on a guy like that," Starks continued. "He uses those quick hands effectively, gets the interior edge and grip to the shoulder pads, then a position block."
"He gets beaten at times," Kugler said of the one-on-one duels, "but he's always competing. The same thing rarely happens to him twice."
Think of Pouncey in much the same vein as Dermontti Dawson, who frequently was 15-20 yards down the field throwing a block.
"I've seen him blocking defensive backs on a completed pass," Kugler said of Pouncey.
Pouncey cites the New York Jets' Nick Mangold as his favorite center to study and, to an extent, emulate.
"He's a mauler, and he knows everything about the game. That's what I'm trying to be," Pouncey said. "At the same time, I'm always going stay humble. Don't think you're better than anybody. One day, when it's all said and done, maybe someone can say that Maurkice Pounce was the best player ever."
There is a rather thick line between humility and that level of confidence.
"Most definitely, but I'm a humble dude. My parents always told me I'm no better than anyone else. I'm human. But I want to be a great player."