Starkey: Lessons from Steelers training camp
Nuggets culled from visits to St. Vincent, where the Steelers held their final training camp practice Saturday:
• Offensive coordinator Todd Haley believes Will Johnson can be the best fullback in the NFL. The Steelers love that Johnson will stand up a linebacker on one play and run a seam route the next. Mark it down: He will be a much bigger part of the offense.
• The camp darling, without a doubt, has been rookie receiver Markus Wheaton. Everyone I spoke with is positive this kid will be an impact player.
Listen to old-school receivers coach Richard Mann, seemingly not a man given to flattering rookies: “Markus has passed every test. The amazing thing is he had no OTAs or minicamp. … It's telling of what kind of professional football player he's going to be.”
Next, this amazing quote from safety Ryan Clark, who told 93.7 FM before practice: “Markus Wheaton is better than Michael Wallace at everything but one thing: speed. That's it. He does everything else better. That's not a knock on Mike. And it's not saying Markus can be more productive than Mike because the thing Mike did well, he did better than anyone else. And that was run.”
• Ike Taylor is all the way back from his broken ankle. His recovery went so well that it seems to have healed his hands.
I saw Ike catch a football Friday. He stepped in front of a Bruce Gradkowski offering in the end zone.
“The leg is actually better than it was,” Taylor said. “Feels like I'm back in college.”
• Shaun Suisham not only made a 60-yard field goal — happened Wednesday — but also disguised himself brilliantly in a Friday morning caper.
As part of a Steelers TV skit, Suisham hopped into one of the golf carts used to transport players across campus and pretended he was a college student.
“He was driving all up on the grass, and the other cart guys were (ticked) at him 'cause they can't drive on the grass,” guard Ramon Foster said. “He was doing a good job, man, because some guys didn't recognize him.”
Taylor wasn't fooled. He spotted the miniature cameras on Suisham's vehicle and said, “What is this, the go-cart confessions?”
• This offensive line can move. It should benefit greatly from the new outside zone-blocking scheme, although the power game remains in the playbook.
“We're not totally selling out to this zone stuff,” new line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. said.
• Bicknell was part of one of the more famous plays in college football history. He was the Boston College center who snapped the ball to Doug Flutie on the “Hail Flutie” that beat Miami in 1984. His father, Jack Bicknell Sr., was BC's coach.
I wondered if it was Bicknell Jr. whose arms Flutie jumped into. Turns out it was guard Steve Trapilo.
“I was actually knocked flat on my back,” Bicknell said. “I was looking around making sure there were no yellow flags because I'd be in trouble. Even my mom would hate me then.”
• Haley indeed has the deep ball in his offense. He seemed perplexed when I told him people sometimes wonder.
“People say that?” Haley said. “I'd say go back and look at the places I've been. We've thrown the ball down the field. There's a ‘go' on almost every route we call. It's just a matter of whether the ball goes there or not.”
Haley figures Ben Roethlisberger's comfort with the playbook will make for more downfield shots, though he says there were chances to convert last season, too.
“Last year we just had to make more of the plays when it did go down the field,” Haley said.
I'll let you decide whether that was a reference to “Michael” Wallace.
• Roethlisberger has regained his fastball, or as Mike Tomlin put it, “He's hosing the thing.”
• Reserve linebacker Marshall McFadden has two degrees from South Carolina State (education, sports activity management) and a suddenly bright future. The man hits.
• Dick LeBeau is the ideal person for a game of “either-or” because he knows everybody.
For example: Johnny Bench or Johnny Cash?
“I actually knew them both,” LeBeau said. “Both great guys. I'll stay with the old catcher. He may still be the best catcher that ever played.”
Read-option or run-and-shoot? LeBeau said the latter was tougher to defend.
“When Houston had Warren Moon and all those guys, that was a great offense,” he said. “Fortunately they didn't have any tight ends, and when the weather turned on 'em, it was like the Germans when they got into Russia, man. It froze 'em up.”
Did I mention he's perfect for that game?