Steelers defensive end Tuitt takes first steps toward proving mettle
When rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt moved up to practice with the Steelers starters over the weekend, he couldn't help but be excited.
The first thing he did was call his mother, Tamara Tuitt-Bartlett, a sheriff's deputy in Gwinnett County, Ga., and noted disciplinarian who once pulled her son out of a high school football practice because he'd left chores undone at home.
“The people I contacted were very excited, but at the same time (starting as a rookie) is not guaranteed,” Tuitt said. “It's just giving a look, showing what I have.”
Still, it might be the first step to Tuitt becoming a NFL regular. He hopes it becomes the milestone that his initial step into football was.
As a freshman at Monroe (Ga.) Area High School, Tuitt was required to take part in preseason weightlifting drills if he wanted to try out for the football team. But he didn't have a ride, and his mom wanted him to stay home and babysit his three brothers.
So Tuitt walked to the workout, covering 11 long miles in the Georgia heat alongside a blacktop highway. He arrived too late to lift but, upon learning how determined the youngster was to play, his coach immediately put him on the junior varsity. His mother relented and allowed him to play.
Now, the former Notre Dame defensive lineman is similarly resolved to not just be a starter, but to be a difference-making star as soon as possible.
“I believe I can be the best defensive lineman in this league. I can, I do and I believe that,” Tuitt said Monday. “But everything will come only with hard work and coach (John) Mitchell's training.”
When the Steelers drafted Tuitt in the second round in May, Mitchell — the defensive line coach — said it was like getting another first-rounder. Tuitt, who had 19½ sacks in his final two Irish seasons, fell out of the first round partly because of a fractured left foot and a sports hernia that led to him gaining an unwanted 10 to 15 pounds last season.
The 6-foot-5 Tuitt played at an estimated 325 to 330 pounds in 2013, but he weighed 304 at the NFL Combine and the Steelers list him at 303. After losing weight, Tuitt regained the speed that made him an elite pass rusher with 12 sacks two years ago.
“He's a hard, willing worker and he's highly conditioned, and that's a great place to start for a young man,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
“He's shown us a lot of athleticism for a big guy and he's in great shape. He can run all day,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “He's pretty highly motivated.”
Teammate Cam Heyward sees that, too, saying Tuitt has all the physical tools needed to succeed but must improve his technique — keeping low, working his hands properly and maintaining leverage.
“He's a raw talent right now, but he has all the talent in the world,” Heyward said. “I think he has a lot of explosion. That's the one thing you love about his body frame. He carries it well, and he's able to explode through the line.”
Tuitt said it's this attention to the tiniest details that has most surprised him 10 days into a camp in which he is competing with former Chargers lineman Cam Thomas.
“Size, speed, technique,” said Tuitt, rattling off what's necessary to succeed. “I'd probably say sometimes the talent doesn't even win, it's technique that wins.”
Tuitt already has shown enough that LeBeau said he could start immediately, along with first-round pick Ryan Shazier.
“That's what they brought me here for: to produce and get back this defense (to No. 1),” he said. “That's what I'm here to do, and I'm going to work hard for it. … But like all powerful and well-known defenses, you have to work at it.”
And maybe even walk that extra mile.