Former Steelers Lineman Tunch Ilkin Offers Handy Tip On Left Tackle Competition

By Matthew Marczi

For the fourth straight practice, beginning with the Friday night practice, second-year tackle Mike Adams has manned the left side of the offensive line, where third-year tackle Marcus Gilbert had practiced throughout the offseason.

Early in the offseason, there were expectations that the two former second round draft picks would compete for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting left tackle job, but as the OTAs wore on with no signs of Adams getting a shot at left tackle, it was unclear that it would ever happen.

After Adams’ late night incident that resulted in him being stabbed, it was not even certain that he would be able to practice at the beginning of training camp. However, he was never placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and by all accounts has yet to even miss a snap.

Those of more cautious mind were quick to remind that position battles are for training camp, however, and now we see that Adams is indeed clearly being given the opportunity to win the starting left tackle job. Before long, it might even be his job to lose.

On yesterday’s edition of Steelers Live, we were offered an insight into two different mindsets with respect to one aspect of the competition—albeit a small one.

Mike Adams is naturally left-handed. Consequently, he has spent virtually all of his football life playing on the left side of the offense. Marcus Gilbert is naturally right-handed. In college, however, he split starts on both the left and the right side.

Gilbert has said numerous times that it is his desire to play on the left side, and one would think that he would be disappointed if he were to be relegated back to the right side after spending the offseason preparing to move to the other side.

On that note, it is not entirely believable when Gilbert says that he will be happy as long as he gets to be on the field playing, as indicated yesterday on the team’s website.

One interesting note, however, is that Gilbert “wasn’t surprised by the move as it was hinted at during the team’s offseason program”. Of course, it is important to caution that it is still early on in the process, as new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. was quick to point out yesterday:

I think it\’s premature to make any real statements as to how this will go from here. It\’s only been a couple of days and we’re just going to continue working it and at the end of the four preseason games, as we\’re getting into our season, we\’ll certainly have it set by then. But it\’s really up to coach Tomlin, obviously, exactly how he wants to go, but this will give us good chance to look at both guys, both sides.

Bicknell, Jr. also relayed a message that he tells his linemen: “you\’re never a left or a right. You\’ve always got to be ready to play both. You never know what\’s going to happen”.

Former Steelers offensive lineman Tunch Ilkin was on Steelers Live yesterday as well, and he had a lot to say about all things linemen. For starters, he was quick to separate the coach’s mindset from the player’s. Regarding never being a left or a right, Ilkin said that that was the coaching mentality, adding that “for the players”, it is important to “keep a guy in one spot, let him get really good at it”.

Ilkin also backed the idea of the dominant hand, based on his own playing experience and his observations during training camp, and by that token, he backed Mike Adams at the team’s left tackle:

When all things are equal, you can really help your guys out by letting them play to their natural side. If you’re left-handed, then you’re much better out of a left-handed set. I heard Mike Tomlin say “what’s the difference, if it’s a corner, you can flip a corner”. I’m sorry, I don’t agree with that, because it’s harder to play [away from your dominant side].

I was talking to Mike Adams. I said “you look more natural on the left side, are you left-handed?” He goes “yeah, I’m left-handed, I’ve always played on the left side”. Marcus Gilbert is right-handed, although he’s played both right and left. He’s your right-handed guy; let him play right-handed. You’ve got Mike Adams; he’s your left-handed guy, he looks very natural on the left side.

It is interesting to see how the mindset of the coach, whose focus is on the overall performance of his entire unit, differs from the mindset of the player, whose top priority it is to play the best that he can. From a player’s perspective, Ilkin believes that a lineman is better served playing to his dominant hand.

Publicly, at least, Marcus Gilbert would disagree. It is no secret that he wants to play on the left side, regardless of which hand he uses to write and eat. And for Bicknell, Jr., it is important to have multiple players who can play left tackle.

Ilkin told Jim Wexell recently that “the key [to the position battle] will be who’s more comfortable coming out of his stance on the left side”, pointing out that both Marvel Smith and Max Starks were left-handed and were more comfortable on the left side.

But, as Bicknell, Jr. said, “the games are where we really find out”. And the first opportunity to really start finding out the answers will be on Saturday. The Steelers have off today, so it will be interesting to see if Adams continues to man the left side throughout practice on Wednesday.

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