Heath Miller has been sidelined in practice for the past two days, nursing a rib injury that he suffered in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Sunday loss in Seattle. Matt Spaeth has also been limited in practice.
It seems that things are shaping up for Jesse James to continue to play a bigger role in Sunday’s game, perhaps more than was the plan for his rookie season. After all, Miller and Spaeth typically see the field so much that the third tight end often only sees a few snaps per game.
Of course, James was drafted with the idea in mind that he would learn from the two veteran tight ends as he prepares to replace them in time, but he has found a role for himself during the second half of his rookie season.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley talked about the progress that James has made since training camp that has prepared him for the opportunity that he now finds himself having, actually playing a meaningful role in the offense.
“Like most young guys, there is an acclimation period”, he said. “He was too heavy when he got here. He got himself in really good shape now. He is running faster. He has much better stamina”.
Of course it’s natural for a young college player to take a significant leap forward once he gets into a professional environment in which not only is the game your job, but it’s the job of other people to put you in the best position to succeed, including strength and conditioning coaches and dieticians.
Perhaps the most important influence, however, has been the aforementioned Miller and Spaeth, who combined are nearing two decades’ worth of experience in the league, and are more than 10 years the young James’ senior.
“He is hanging around two of the couple best teachers from a player standpoint in Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth” Haley said, “so if you just pay attention to what they are doing, you have a chance”. He also went on to make sure that tight ends coach James Daniel gets his proper credit.
Naturally, James has also had much to do with his improvement, and his ability to gain the trust of the coaching staff enough to put him in games. He caught one pass for eight yards in the last game, as well as a two-point conversion throw that is only factored in to the player’s points total.
Haley credits the young rookie’s patience and work ethic, staying driven to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity that he now has. The Steelers had no healthy scratches in the last game and he still got a helmet, so it looks like it may stay that way.
That opportunity arose because of an injury that sidelined Spaeth for two weeks leading into the bye, but with Spaeth returning, James kept his helmet. “We say all the time, once you get a helmet, don’t give it up”, said Haley. “Don’t let us take it away”.