At a brief media session yesterday after the final organized team activity of 2012, Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler seemed to talk as much about players who didn't participate as the ones who did.
That stands to reason. With James Farrior gone, James Harrison a scratch for the OTAs, LaMarr Woodley not practicing and Jason Worilds recuperating from wrist surgery, a lot of veteran talent was missing.
But Butler seemed pleased with what he has seen thus far in some junior members of the linebacker corps, with one caveat: "Here's the deal -- they all look good in shorts. Its almost like a beauty contest. But, when the hittin' starts, we'll find out about 'em."
He has found out, however, that third-round pick Sean Spence -- who made an eye-catching interception in drills yesterday -- is a quick study and likely will see game action this season.
"He's coming along well. A very sharp young man. He's picking up our system as good as anybody has at this point," Butler said.
"He's showed me some things ... I wouldn't say he's not going to play. The fact of the matter is, since I've been here, we've never had a rookie start for us -- not Lawrence Timmons, not LaMarr Woodley, not anybody. So we'll see with him. He may not start, but he's probably going to get some playing time."
Butler also singled out second-year man Chris Carter as well as undrafted free agents Adrian Robinson and Brandon Hicks for their good showing in OTAs, but he was most effusive in his praise for the departed James Farrior and said replacing him will be a challenge.
"I won't ever feel good about not having James Farrior. A guy with that leadership type of quality, and knowing the defense the way he knows it, it was easy for him to set the defense. Stuff that comes up -- and it always does -- on the field that you haven't covered as a coach, he can take care of."
Butler added that the experience of 11-year veteran Larry Foote will get them through.
"[Foote] knows what's going to come out of my mouth before I say it ... I think Larry's going to try to fill that void for us in terms of getting the defense set and running the defense. [But] the leadership quality that Potsie brought, I don't know if we can replace that."
Nonetheless, Butler is optimistic: "I hope we'll be as good a defense as we were last year. I do feel good about that."
Harrison has not participated in these OTAs, but Butler said he will join the team next week for minicamp, as will Woodley, who missed practice Thursday.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said that Harrison's recovery from back surgery last year "got better and better as the year went on. He told me earlier in coaching sessions, it's the best he's felt for three years, which was good news."
Butler said that Worilds had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his wrist that he injured last season, but expects to be ready for training camp next month.
"He's going to have full range of mobility, hopefully, when its done. It's just taking some time to heal. We want to be sure about it so when we get to training camp he's ready to go," said Butler.
The absence of Harrison, Woodley and Worilds from the OTAs has not bothered LeBeau.
"The plus of that is some of these younger guys are getting awful lot of snaps," LeBeau said. "I think they'll all be up and ready to go in training camp."
Butler had a chance to leave in the offseason to become the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis, but opted to stay and work under LeBeau. "I love Dick LeBeau. I've learned a tremendous amount from him and I've got too much respect for him to be a guy that tries to push him out the door."
First Published June 8, 2012 12:00 AM