Essex hopes he has right stuff
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer
LATROBE - The person who came up with the saying, "Jack of all trades, master of none," was definitely onto something.
Just ask Steelers offensive lineman Trai Essex.
Essex worked hard last season to learn how to play every offensive line position except center.
But when right guard Kendall Simmons was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon Sept. 29 against Baltimore, it wasn't Essex who got the call to replace him. Instead, second-year pro Darnell Stapleton moved into the open spot while Essex continued to be the team's top backup at both guard and tackle.
"To that point last season, I hadn't played a lot of right guard," said Essex at the Steelers training camp here at Saint Vincent College. "I had practiced mostly on the left side. Darnell had played more right guard than me at that time. It was a lot of things. I thought I had a pretty good camp last year and thought I deserved to go in. But last year is last year."
This year, the Jack of all trades is getting his opportunity to master the right side of the line. And Essex, a third-round pick in 2005, hopes to make the most of it.
Simmons was released at the end of the 2008 season and the Steelers re-signed Essex to a two-year, $1.92-million contract offering him an opportunity to battle Stapleton for the starting right guard position. Rookie Kraig Urbik was also selected in the third round of the draft with the thought of turning up the heat on the competition at the position.
"It's a competition like everything," said Essex. "Coaches like to say that all jobs are open. Some are more competition than others and this is a legit competition. I'm going in with that mindset, that I've got to win it. It's not going to be given to either one of us."
Not that Essex would expect that, either. He spent the offseason working on his weight and conditioning - something that had been a problem for him in the past - and getting closer to his listed playing weight of 6-5, 324 pounds.
"Trai has got desire to be great, he wants to be in the huddle with the other starting 10 and you've got to respect that," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "He will be given an opportunity, but that's all he will be given. Who walks out of that tunnel for us on opening day in the starting line up will determine what they do here."
In this case - at least early on - it may be Stapleton who is being hurt by versatility. With starting center Justin Hartwig out of action early at training camp with a toe injury, Stapleton has been working at center with Essex lining up at right guard.
Essex also spent much of the spring working on the right side of the line, something that was especially important since he had been a backup primarily on the left side - at both tackle and guard - throughout most of his first four NFL seasons. In fact, all four of his career starts have come at left tackle.
"I played left tackle all throughout college and I was a backup here on the left side until last year," Essex said. "It was more of a weight placement thing, getting used to pushing off with my left leg as opposed to pushing off with my right one.
"I practiced a lot with that, getting used to coming out of that position."
But he feels all of the work on the right side has paid off, just as all of his work at four different positions did last season.
"(Being the primary backup everywhere) you don't get enough time to get a lot of reps at one position," Essex said. "At the same time, if you're going to be that guy, you need the reps at the other positions, so it's a catch-22. I'm going to make it a very hard decision for them this year to do that (again)."
Odds and end zones
A 15-minute rain shower rolled through Latrobe Sunday during the Steelers' practice but the team completed its workout. ... Linebacker Lawrence Timmons (cramps), defensive lineman Sonny Harris (groin), center Justin Hartwig (toe), tight end Heath Miller (hernia surgery) and wide receiver Hines Ward (veteran's day off) did not practice Sunday. ... The Steelers will hold two practices today, the second of which (3 p.m.) is open to the public.
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