On the Steelers: Pouncey doesn't play like a rookie
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The Steelers know as well as any team in the NFL that taking an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft does not mean that player will have success in the league. A look back at recent team history shows that only half of the linemen selected in the first round in the past quarter century lasted more than five seasons with the Steelers.
The list of former Steelers offensive linemen who washed out of the league in short order includes John Reinstra, Tom Ricketts and Jamain Stephens. The other three such selections were Kendall Simmons, Alan Faneca and Leon Searcy.
In Maurkice Pouncey, the 18th overall selection out of the University of Florida, the Steelers are thinking they have a keeper. Pouncey will join Marvel Smith as the only other rookie offensive lineman to start an opener in more than 40 years when the Steelers play host Sunday to the Atlanta Falcons.
For someone who turned 21 July 24, Pouncey has shown the rare ability to act like a veteran. Those who competed with and against Pouncey every day at training camp said his demeanor on and off the field set him apart.
"When you spend a day with Pouncey, you don't know that he's a rookie," said right guard Trai Essex. "He really walks around here with the confidence that he can do it. He's going to be a good one. We learned that from day one."
Pouncey demonstrated from the first day of training camp that he was an atypical rookie. After the first week of camp he was splitting repetitions with incumbent starter Justin Hartwig, and, by the end, the Steelers felt so strongly about his ability that they severed ties with Hartwig, the starting center when the team won the Super Bowl after the 2008 season.
"Maurkice has been phenomenal," left guard Chris Kemoeatu said. "He's fitting right in. I'm pretty impressed. I expect him to help us out a lot this year."
Players and coaches have raved about his strength and athleticism, but, more recently, he has impressed his teammates with his knowledge of the playbook. Essex is there to help make the line calls, but Pouncey has not needed much help.
"It's very unusual," Essex said. "Usually, there are a few things that get you as a rookie. One of them is the speed of the game. The other is the length and the complexity of the playbook. For him to pick those things up as fast as he did is pretty amazing. He picked up this offense fast, and it's not an easy offense to pick up, especially for a center. It's a testament to him."
While Essex and Kemoeatu can speak of Pouncey's mental preparedness, nose tackle Casey Hampton can speak to his physical prowess. Hampton lined up against Pouncey at training camp and came away impressed. Pouncey, who is 6 feet 4 and 304 pounds, has the strength to handle 350-pound defensive linemen and the athleticism to get to the second level and block linebackers.
"He gets it," Hampton said. "He's definitely strong enough. And he's an athletic guy who is smart. That helps out a whole lot. I don't think he'll have any problems picking it up. He's going to be all right. He's definitely ready. The coaches wouldn't have him out there if they didn't feel like he could get it done."
Pouncey was a three-year starter at Florida and is used to winning over his coaches quickly.
He was the seventh true freshman in Florida history to start an opener for the Gators. He started 39 of 41 games in his college career and left after his junior season to turn professional.
Pouncey sees no reason why his transition to the NFL should not go the same way.
"Ain't no point in getting scared now," Pouncey said. "I feel pretty good about everything. I think I'm going to do pretty well."
NOTE -- Kemoeatu practiced and is expected to start Sunday. He sat out practice Thursday because of a sprained left ankle. "The ankle feels good," Kemoeatu said. "I'm going to play."
First Published September 11, 2010 12:00 am