They're no 'Slash,' but these college QBs try hand at WR with Steelers
Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton wasn't selling out his position peers when he said, “I think quarterbacks have the best hands on the team.”
But teammate Bruce Gradkowski, perhaps, was a little biased when he said, “I feel like all quarterbacks are athletic.”
The Steelers, who arguably have had as much success as anyone during the past two decades using former college quarterbacks as wide receivers, once again are putting those theories to the test.
Devin Gardner and Tyler Murphy combined for 46 collegiate starts at quarterback for Power 5 conference teams. But each is listed on the Steelers roster as a wide receiver after being acquired as undrafted free agents earlier this month.
“We're both going through the transition, so we're both trying to help each other,” Murphy said. “We're both real smart guys — being a quarterback, you know what everybody is doing out there, so we are both able to pick up information from the meeting rooms and stuff onto the field quickly. So for us, it's just really just detailing and executing the physical part.”
Since 1995, the Steelers have drafted Kordell Stewart, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El. Each played at least some quarterback at a big-time college and experienced success as a receiver in the NFL.
Murphy, who spent four seasons at Florida before finishing as a graduate transfer at Boston College, didn't start at quarterback until his final two years in college.
Gardner was one of the nation's highest-rated quarterback recruits coming out of Detroit in 2010. He had high-profile moments in high-profile games — he accounted for five touchdowns in a win against Notre Dame under the lights at Michigan Stadium in 2013 — but his teams underachieved, and Gardner twice during his career was moved to other positions.
If Gardner is going to stick with the Steelers, it will be as a receiver. While Murphy has taken part in drills and meetings at quarterback and receiver during rookie camp and organized team activities, Gardner has been exclusively at wideout since being claimed off waivers from New England on May 19.
“We're doing different things,” Gardner said, “but that's cool to have somebody going through the same transition.”
Murphy and Gardner are known for their football intelligence. “The coaches have kind of been giving me a hard time saying, ‘You have a master's. You're a smart kid, so you can get it done,' ” Murphy said.
Murphy has had to digest more information than most rookies. Besides absorbing details of two positions, he also has been thrust into special teams — Murphy took reps at placeholder during OTAs last week.
“(Coach Mike Tomlin) definitely says it a lot: ‘The more you can do, the better,' ” Murphy said. “So I'm just trying to display that I can help out at the receiver position if needed and I can help out the quarterback position if needed and just different things, whether it's holding or trying to block a punt.
“I'm just trying to find a way to continue to play football.”
Murphy speculates his best chance to make the Steelers roster is showing he's a viable No. 3 quarterback option who also can play receiver and on special teams.
Murphy and Gardner accounted for two of the Steelers' predraft visits with college players. Teams told Gardner he would be a receiver who could fill a limited wildcat role. Murphy's predraft emphasis almost exclusively was at quarterback.
Among the Steelers receivers, so far, they have impressed.
“They actually both have looked really good at receiver,” Wheaton said.
“They're coming along great,” second-year receiver Martavis Bryant said. “It's about technique. They've just got to get their technique, and if they get that, they'll get it done.”
Being quarterbacks for so long familiarized them with route terminology to the point they aren't lost, they said.
“A ‘curl-flat' is still a ‘curl-flat,' ” Murphy said. “You're reading the defender, and as a wide receiver you're still running the same route.”
But just like adapting to any new skill, acquiring muscle memory is the difficult part. Murphy is quick at picking up things, but that can't replace the years some of his receiver peers have had in running countless routes.
After all, how many of his receiver teammates immediately could pick up the nuance of a quarterback's routine?
“I'm out there counting my steps and stuff like that. It's just repetitions,” Murphy said. “It's almost like a five-step drop — I've been doing those and three-step drops all my life, so when you're dropping back you don't think. You don't count your five-step drops.
“I'm still kind of trying to get comfortable like that with routes. If I'm running a 6-yard hitch, to not to count my steps, just let it be flowing and let it be second nature.”