Pittsburgh Steelers training camp preview: Former Penn State WR Justin Brown in the mix for punt return duties

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Justin Brown (15) participates in the NFL football rookie Mini Camp on Saturday, May 4, 2013 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

By Dustin Hockensmith | [EMAIL="dhockensmith@pennlive.com"]dhockensmith@pennlive.com[/EMAIL]
on July 15, 2013

The Pittsburgh Steelers have two former Big Ten players vying for punt return duties this summer.

Wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders both take on bigger roles in the offense, which could open opportunities for former Wisconsin standout David Gilreath and Justin Brown, who played at Penn State before transferring to Oklahoma last season.

Gilreath was the only Steelers player outside of Brown and Sanders to return punts last season, and he got just two attempts. As trusted return men go, Gilreath likely has an inside track, even with just one NFL season under his belt.

Still, the abilities of Brown can't be ignored. He has a combination of size -- 6-3, 209 pounds -- and speed and comes off a senior season at Oklahoma in which he ranked 12th nationally with a return average of 13.6 yards.

Pittsburgh has two special teams incumbents in kicker Shaun Suisham and punter Drew Butler who will have to fend off competition for their jobs.

Veteran LaRod Stephens-Howling was signed with an eye toward the kick return game, but must contend with undrafted rookie Reggie Dunn, who was one of the most prolific returners in NCAA history.

Competition should be spirited among the specialists in training camp, which begins on July 26. Here's a look at the key positions and projected starters.


PK Shaun Suisham: Suisham had arguably the best season of his career in 2012, making 28 of 31 field goal attempts. He made 27 of 28 kicks inside 50 yards, with his only miss coming on a botched snap. Still, he'll have to beat out Daniel Hrapmann for placekicking duties for the second straight season.

P Drew Butler: Butler handled the Steelers' punting duties as a rookie last season and averaged 43.8 yards per attempt. He ranked 26th in the NFL in average and 25th in net punting (37.. He'll compete with Brian Moorman for the starting job.

KR LaRod Stephens-Howling: Stephens-Howling, a former Pitt standout, was signed to a one-year deal in April. He'll get into the mix for time at running back, but is also the favorite to return kicks. He returned 163 kicks in four seasons with Arizona and led the NFL with 1,548 return yards in 2010.

PR David Gilreath: Gilreath was the only player outside of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to return a punt last season. He had two attempts for eight yards after serving as Wisconsin's primary punt returner as a senior in 2011.


PK Daniel Hrapmann: Hrapmann was among the first players cut during camp last summer. He was re-signed in January to compete with Suisham for placekicking duties. He was an All-America selection as a redshirt junior at Southern Mississippi, but made just 23 of 34 kicks as a senior, including 7 of 16 from 40-plus yards.


P Brian Moorman: Moorman, 37, is a two-time Pro Bowler who ranked among the NFL's top five punters in average three times. He averaged 44.8 yards per punt in stints with the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys last season.

KR Reggie Dunn: Dunn was a near-unanimous All-America selection as a kick returner, setting all kinds of NCAA records along the way. Dunn averaged 30.9 yards per return and set NCAA records with four 100-yard returns for touchdown last season and five in his career.

PR Justin Brown: Assuming Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are no longer in the picture, Brown has an outside chance to win the punt returner job. He averaged 13.6 yards per return at Oklahoma last season and was the primary punt returner at Penn State as a junior in 2011.


KR Chris Rainey: Rainey was cut in January after being arrested and accused of slapping his girlfriend. He was the team's primary kick returner, recording 39 attempts for 1,035 yards and a 26.5-yard average.