Many Steelers position battles far from settled
By Scott Brown
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Ryan Clark is approachable and affable, but the Steelers' free safety made it clear last week that he did not want to talk about one of the position battles that will play out during coach Mike Tomlin's first training camp. "I'm not answering questions about Anthony Smith," Clark said as he walked off the playing field last week following a morning practice at St. Vincent College.
Game on? Well, yes and no.
Clark is one of several veterans who could lose a starting job to players they helped tutor as rookies just last year. That hasn't stopped him, right tackle Max Starks or wide receiver Cedrick Wilson from giving pointers to the players who will push them for their starting positions (and may well pass them on the depth chart if they haven't already).
The reasons for this are varied: they were rookies at one time, competition will make them - and ultimately the Steelers - better, and competitors sometimes become as close to one another off the field as they are on it. That is the case with Smith and Clark, even though the two players with different personalities are vying for the same job.
"We're actually best friends, I would say, on the team," Smith said. "We don't let (the competition) go off the field. We both have an understanding that it's out of our hands. Whatever decision (the coaches make), he's going to help me out, I'm going to help him out."
Holmes, one of the top rookies in the NFL last season, so appreciated the help that Wilson gave him that he made a point of publicly thanking the veteran during a wide receivers meeting.
Wilson appreciated the gesture, but it also surprised him, pleasantly, because he said he has always made himself available to younger players, particularly first-year ones.
The player that Wilson credits for showing him the finer points of the game during his rookie season in San Francisco has become, oddly enough, the face (and caricature) of the self-absorbed athlete.
Of course, that was before Terrell Owens and good teammate went together like McDonald's and gourmet dining.
"T.O. was a great mentor, his practice habits, his work ethic," said Wilson, who played for the 49ers from 2001-04 before signing with the Steelers. "He's just like Hines (Ward) and myself. We don't like to see young guys continue to get out here and make mistakes. I was just happy to be a part of (Holmes') development and I hope he continues to develop."
Holmes finished second on the team in catches (49) and receiving yards (824) in 2006 and started the final three games of the season after an ankle injury slowed Wilson.
The Steelers' first-round pick in 2006 entered training camp ahead of Wilson on the depth chart at split end. Holmes, however, has left an opening for his mentor by missing the first week of practice while recovering from an undisclosed medical procedure.
An injury to Starks gave Willie Colon a chance to play last season, and the two games he started at right tackle erased any doubts he might have had that he can play in the NFL.
His time on the field also convinced Colon, a fourth-round pick out of Hofstra in 2006, that he has done enough watching.
"I've never sat on the bench," said Colon, who dropped 15 to 20 pounds to get ready for camp and his challenge for a starting job. "It's going to be a dogfight, and I love Max. I just want to be able to beat him out."
If Starks ends up on the bench, he'll have played at least a small role in the demotion since he helped Colon last season. But he didn't think twice about giving advice to the rookie, even though it has helped, if only in a small way, put Colon in a position to unseat Starks.
"Barrett Brooks helped me my rookie year (2004) and then the right tackle job became available, and it was me versus Barrett," said Starks, who beat out the veteran Brooks for the starting job. "There's always a new guy coming in. There's going to be competition."
The one between Clark and Smith has been anything but cut-throat.
The outgoing Clark took an immediate liking to Smith, a third-round pick in 2006, and no doubt helped draw him out of his shell.
He liked the humility with which Smith, who comes across as reserved, carried himself, and he didn't see the former Syracuse star's immense talent as a threat, but something he should help nurture.
"I've heard, on other teams, that older guys, they don't help the younger guys out because they know they're coming for their spot," said Smith, who has goes to Clark's house for dinner and plays with his kids. "But here they help the young guys out because you're only as good as your weakest link. Me and Ryan clicked off the bat."
Things really started to click for Smith after a late-season injury to Clark gave him a chance to start.
He made a couple of interceptions and established himself as a fierce and fearless hitter.
During an 11-on-11 drill last Thursday, he belted Willie Reid after the wide receiver caught a pass off a slant pattern.
That, in so many words, told Clark that friends or no friends, Smith is coming after his job.
Clark wouldn't have it any other way.
"We're all competing, but we all want to win as a team," Clark said. "I feel like with him playing great, whether it's starting or whatever, if it helps us be a better team I'm going to do whatever it takes to help that."