Steelers' Hampton tackles role of mentor
Casey Hampton spent much of the Steelers' recent minicamp nursing a left knee that required ACL surgery shortly after last season's playoff loss at Denver.
Yet a reinvigorated Hampton will begin his 12th season fully engaged. With linebacker James Farrior and wide receiver Hines Ward gone, the five-time Pro Bowler assumes the role of mentor for a team slowly gaining a youthful look.
“I'm feeling better than ever,” Hampton said. “I'll be ready to go when camp starts. I'm getting my knees and small muscles in shape. When you get older, you want to have fun with it because you don't have much time left. I'm definitely not done. I have a lot more football in me.”
Hampton will turn 35 six days before the season opener Sept. 9 at Denver. That's why the Steelers felt compelled to seek his successor at nose tackle.
On the first day of minicamp workouts, Hampton devoted plenty of time to schooling rookie Alameda Ta'amu on the intricacies of the position, which Hampton has manned for the Steelers since 2001.
“As a rookie, I want to sit back and learn,” Ta'amu said. “Casey was telling me how to use my hands because they are my weapons, especially in the scheme we play.”
With defensive line coach John Mitchell in one ear, Ta'amu had Hampton in the other.
“I try to help all those guys, but I see (Ta'amu) has a lot of potential,” said Hampton, who took a pay cut to make one more run at the Steelers' seventh Super Bowl title. “I just give him a few pointers.”
As Mitchell put his linemen through drills, Hampton pulled Ta'amu aside to offer a few pointers. An attentive Ta'amu, tugging at his shaggy beard, seemed surprised that Hampton was teaching him everything he needs to know to inherit the starting job.
“It's not like what you think — people not talking to you or not wanting to be your friend,” said Ta'amu, a 6-foot-2, 328-pound fourth-round pick out of Washington. “But Casey has made me feel like a part of the team. He was telling me techniques and things I need to fix.”
The Steelers hope Ta'amu is a quick study. He isn't likely to supplant Hampton this season, but he certainly can challenge Steve McLendon for the No. 2 job.
“They won't know anything until they put the pads on,” Hampton said. “You can get a guy and see how he works and their attitude toward things. If you have anything, everyone will see it. I will see it.”
Three days wasn't nearly enough time for Hampton to teach Ta'amu all he has learned in his 11 seasons. But he pounded into Ta'amu's head the value of understanding the little things.
“When I first came in, (Mitchell) taught me a lot,” Hampton said. “A coach can only tell you so much because, if they haven't played the position they don't know what it's like. You have to take things from guys who have been there. I'm going to give him the real life about how it is to be a nose tackle.”
Ta'amu has some big cleats and massive shoulder pads to fill when Hampton follows Farrior and Ward into retirement.
“I have enough veterans helping me out,” he said. “But to have Casey as a mentor is a good thing.”
Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7923.