Collier: Steelers' new beast could be a beauty to watch
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For an arranged conversation with Stephen Craine McLendon the other day, I reflexively motioned us to a shaded area near the Saint Vincent cafeteria, a hot-summer-in-Latrobe habit that proved to be pointless.
If you stand close enough to Steve McLendon, you're already in shadows.
The sun might easily find its way into the glades and valleys of the Laurel Mountains, but that doesn't mean it can get around the shoulders of this 26-year-old nose tackle from Ozark, Ala.
The most readily heard commentary of the first full week of Steelers training camp 2012 was that Steve McLendon is a beast. Casey Hampton called him a beast. Former beast-tamer and current Steelers sideline reporter Craig Wolfley called him a beast. And as it happens, the Steelers in fact have a need at beast.
McLendon certainly appeared beastly in a Thursday drill when he gave Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey all he could handle and, a couple of times, a little too much.
But the beast of the hour waves off any such designation.
"I call myself 'The Work In Progress,' " McLendon said. "You have to train yourself for this. It has to do with muscle memory, repetitions, mental reps; it's hard work. You can't just wake up and be a beast of a nosetackle."
True enough, but you can wake up to find Hampton on the Physical Unable to Perform List, to find fourth-round draft pick Alameda Ta'amu a year or more away from supplanting Hampton at the position, to find Chris Hoke in retirement and to find that a one-time undrafted free agent without pedigree or portfolio is now in the anchor position of Dick LeBeau's celebrated 3-4 defense.
But don't think McLendon didn't get here the hard way.
Scouted by Mark Gorscak and Dan Rooney Jr. at Troy University in Alabama, McLendon was signed to a contract in April 2009, which seems like a lifetime ago.
"Even last year, I was just a camp body," McLendon said. "This year I'm trying to fight to be the starter until Casey comes back. I did a lot of studying in the offseason. I asked my coaches what I could do to really understand the position. It's been a humbling experience for me, but my confidence is just a whole lot better going into this season.
"I'm going in with a whole different mindset."
McLendon's mindset up until late last year was pretty much a day-to-day existence of wondering whether he even had a job at 3400 S. Water St. Between April 2009 and the fall 2011, he was waived three times, released once, cut once, re-signed five different times and even activated three times. He was once waived to clear space on the roster for the newly unsuspended Ben Roethlisberger.
"Every young guy gets discouraged at times," McLendon said. "You've got to learn through adversity. It's not about what you're doing right now, it's about coming out on top.
"You don't give up. I've been blessed to be around players like Chris Hoke, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, guys who told me you have to work at your craft, keep working. I started getting interested in that kind of leadership, so this year I've done some leadership stuff off the field, too."
McLendon organized and staged Fun In The Sun Days for local children in his hometown.
"I wanted to show the kids that there is somebody out there that does care about them," he said. "I ran the whole thing."
While he wasn't doing that, McLendon worked out like a maniac. Absorbing advice from assistant head coach John Mitchell and Steelers conditioning boss Garrett Giemont, McLendon has, in the parlance of the coaching staff, reinvented himself.
Listed at 280 pounds, McLendon is a victim of the Steelers tradition of weighing rookies and never changing the published figure ever again no matter what. Roethlisberger, now in his ninth year, is still at 241. Exactly. Never 240. Never 242.
Guard Willie Colon, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported this week, has always been listed at 315. He's 345.
So, Steve, what do you weigh?
And there was independent confirmation on that.
Funny, the Steelers list Hampton at 325 as well. That's maybe his birth weight.
What's not so funny for Steelers opponents is that somewhere in this process, McLendon managed to get into 14 games last year, made 13 tackles, got his first sack, recovered a fumble and impeded just enough offensive lineman to funnel just enough of linebacker traffic to just enough collision points that it started to look like an actual career was being launched.
You might not achieve certifiable beastliness merely on the strength of some summer testimony, but McLendon is ready to play at a different level of aptitude, a more violently effective level, and a lot of people can't wait to see it.
First Published August 3, 2012 10:24 pm