If you have been following the Pittsburgh Steelers for a while, then you know that longtime defensive line coach John Mitchell is not in the habit of being overly complimentary toward younger players, particularly when they first come on board. He holds the belief that he has to break players down from what they learned in college and rebuild them in his system.
But he has had little choice but to rely on younger players in recent years, ever since the vanguard line of the 2000s slowly faded away over the course of the past five years, and this has been particularly the case the past two seasons, including this year.
Fortunately, he has had the opportunity to coach defensive end Stephon Tuitt, a former 2014 second-round draft pick, and Tuitt has had Brett Keisel, and then Cameron Heyward, as his role models on and off the field. Tuitt entered the starting lineup at the end of his rookie season and was a full-time starter last year, which is exceedingly rare.
But three other younger players, third-year nose tackle Daniel McCullers, second-year defensive end L.T. Walton, and rookie defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, will also have to take on a bigger role this year, perhaps McCullers in particular given the free agency departure of Steve McLendon.
Mitchell talked about some of his young players such as Tuitt and McCullers recently, and of McCullers he said, “right now I’m please where he is”. On Tuitt, his development since his rookie season for the veteran coach has been a “day and night” transformation.
Mitchell talked about the things that he wanted to see from his players when asked about McCullers, citing conditioning, learning the defense, working on details, and learning how to finish, because “these things will help you win football games on Sunday”.
Mitchell said that McCullers “has come back in great shape” and that “he’s doing most of those things”, but he added, “I want him to be able to do all of those things”, which suggests there is work left to be done. “Things are going to be picked apart” in training camp, he said. “He’s going to have pads on, and he’s going to be evaluated a little different”.
When it comes to Tuitt, he reminisced a bit about how far he’d come, and about how he drew influences from the older guys ahead of him, of what he took away from Heyward and McLendon. “He patterned himself after those guys”, Mitchell said. “He watched Cam run to the ball, he watched Cam take notes, and now this guy what it takes to play in this league on this level”.
He believes that Tuitt is “going to have a heck of a football season”, which should be taken as fairly high praise from him of a third-year player. But McCullers’ role will be important as well, as will Hargrave and Walton, as the Steelers attempt to get more bodies ready who are able to take up some snaps along the defensive front.