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fordfixer
09-12-2010, 01:05 AM
Steelers' Pouncey the center of attention
By Scott Brown, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, September 12, 2010
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsbu ... 99128.html (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/steelers/s_699128.html)

Maurkice Pouncey's pregame ritual dates to his days at the University of Florida.

Pouncey calls his mother when he wakes up, and Lisa Webster asks, "What time is it?"

"Game time!" Pouncey answers. "I'll call you after the game."

Webster will be in Pittsburgh when she gets the call today. She and her husband, Rob, will be among the almost 70,000 fans who cram into Heinz Field for the Steelers' 1 p.m. season opener against the Atlanta Falcons

Pouncey, according to team archives, is the first Steelers rookie center to open the season as a starter. He'll also become the first rookie offensive lineman to start the opener since Marvel Smith at right tackle in 2000.

How Pouncey and the Steelers arrived at this point was summed up in five words by offensive line coach Sean Kugler: "The kid gets the game."

The Steelers knew that when they selected Pouncey 18th in April's NFL Draft. But the 6-foot-4, 304-pounder even surprised the coaches with how well he adapted to the NFL, accelerating their plans for him and making Justin Hartwig, who had started 35 consecutive games at center, expendable.

As young as Pouncey is — he and his identical twin brother, Mike, turned 21 a week before the Steelers reported to training camp — he is not naοve. When asked whether he expects the Falcons to try to confuse him today, Pouncey, who is responsible for making blocking adjustments at the line of scrimmage, laughed.

"Oh, heck yeah," he said. "We're going to see some stuff."

The Steelers are confident Pouncey can handle it — or he wouldn't be the first rookie position player to start under coach Mike Tomlin.

"Did we view that he'd be this far, this fast? No, but that's on him," Kugler said. "He hung around the vets and asked millions of questions and worked at it. He stepped up. It was evident on film. It was evident in practice and in games."

Ahead of schedule

Pouncey has been on the fast track despite getting off to a slow start at training camp. He signed a five-year deal worth close to $18 million the day the Steelers reported to St. Vincent College but missed the mandatory conditioning drill.

Pouncey, who had flown from Florida to Pittsburgh, arrived late for the 6 a.m. run test that Tomlin had mandated for him the following day. Then he suffered a minor hamstring injury while doing the extra running that Tomlin had ordered because of his tardiness.

If that seems like ages ago, that's because Pouncey has made such a rapid ascent.

The Steelers had planned to play him at right guard. Pouncey, however, performed so well at center that he looks like a possible link to the great players the Steelers have had at the position — from Ray Mansfield and Mike Webster to Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings.

It is premature to anoint Pouncey the second coming of Dawson, but he is reminiscent of the seven-time Pro Bowler with his ability to get off the line of scrimmage and block downfield.

Pouncey has exchanged text messages with Dawson. Hartings, the most recent Pro Bowler the Steelers have had at center, said he has been impressed with what he has seen — both on and off the field. Pouncey helped Hartings at a recent football clinic that the latter ran for the Urban Impact Foundation at Oliver High School.

"His willingness to come out and do those kinds of things in the community, I thought, said a lot about him and the kind of person that he is," Hartings said.

Such civic-mindedness won't help Pouncey on the field, where he will need to tap into his nasty streak.

"Immediately, what really stuck out to me was his athleticism," said Hartings, who retired in 2006. "You have to block 350-pounders, and you've got to have a lot of strength. But, on the other hand, you've got to be able to chase down 240-pound linebackers. I think he has that unique ability to do both."

A difficult position

Pouncey might be playing elsewhere if centers were more valued coming out of college.

The Denver Broncos were high on Pouncey, but coach Josh McDaniels thought the 11th pick was too early to take a center. Ultimately, Pouncey was the only center taken until the Broncos selected Baylor's J.D. Walton in the third round.

Centers may not be coveted in the draft, but they play a critical and demanding position. Centers have to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage based on the defense, and they handle the ball more than any player aside from the quarterback.

Whatever benefit centers get from knowing the snap count is compromised by the fact that they have to make a clean exchange with the quarterback before they can block.

"I always thought it was funny that even the NFL coaches would say, 'Oh, (snapping) is fundamental. That's one of the easiest things to do.' But yet most of them have never been in that position," Hartings said. "The reality is, having played the position with a 350-pounder over me, it's actually, in my opinion, one of the most difficult things to do in football."

Pouncey, to be sure, will have his rookie moments, but they have been few and far between to this point. The most notable came during training camp, when former NFL safety John Lynch visited.

Pouncey rooted for the Buccaneers growing up, and he once had a jersey signed by Lynch. He admitted to being star-struck when he introduced himself to Lynch, now an analyst for Fox Sports, during practice.

Such behavior appears to be anything but the norm for Pouncey. And what he doesn't have in his Pittsburgh condominium may be the best indicator of how grounded he is: There are no keepsakes from the three state championships he helped Lakeland High School capture in Florida's second-highest prep classification and nothing from the national championship he won at Florida.

Pouncey doesn't even have the Rimington Trophy, which he claimed last season as the best center in college football.

"I gave everything to my Dad," Pouncey said. "He has all of the rings and trophies."

So much for sentimentality, which may be telling of Pouncey's focus on what is ahead.

"If you didn't know he was a rookie, you wouldn't be able to tell," right guard Trai Essex said. "It's like he's been here for years, which is great because, for him to be in this position, he needs to act like that. He can't be a rookie, because we don't have time."

Pouncey appears to be an ideal fit for the Steelers — and not just because they needed to upgrade their offensive line. He has fallen right in line with a tight-knit group of offensive linemen. And Pouncey has performed rookie tasks, such as buying lunch for his fellow linemen on Saturdays, with a smile that comes easily.

Pouncey's easygoing nature notwithstanding, Essex said the rookie has a "Florida swagger" about him.

"Just supreme confidence," Essex said. "He knows what he's capable of on the football field and just life."