Fresh start: Steelers rookies understand high expectations

Sports

FILE – Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth (87) looks for a pass during warmups before an NCAA college football game against Ohio State in State College, Pa., in this Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, file photo. Steelers rookie Freiermuth took over former tight end Vance McDonald’s locker … right next to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger, File)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Kendrick Green grew up wearing No. 53.

Still, the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie center wasn’t so sure if it would be available after the team selected him in the third round of the NFL draft.

The number, after all, belonged to nine-time Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey for more than a decade until his abrupt retirement at 32 in February. Green wondered if the Steelers might take it out of circulation for a year or two in deference to one of the best offensive linemen of his generation.

“I was fully prepared for them to keep it off,” Green said Friday.

Only they didn’t. So Green gladly accepted it, and all the pressure that entails.

“I’ve got big shoes to fill,” Green said.

And he might have to do it quickly. While the Steelers re-signed J.C. Hassenauer and brought back B.J. Finney on a one-year deal in the wake of Pouncey’s departure, Green will have every opportunity to become the long-term answer in the middle of an offensive line in a state of flux.

Green spent most of his time at guard during his college career at Illinois. Yet he certainly looked comfortable with his hand on top of the football during the first workout of his professional life.

Still, he’s also aware of the stakes. Pittsburgh is attempting to reload rather than rebuild after a blowout loss to Cleveland in the opening round of the playoffs.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is returning for an 18th season and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster opted to stick around for one more season rather than head elsewhere in free agency.

Pittsburgh’s ability to stay in the mix in the competitive AFC North will depend largely on how a retooled offensive line does keeping Roethlisberger upright while also opening holes for first-round draft pick Najee Harris.

Oh, and the line — which will likely feature just one player (right guard David DeCastro) at the same spot he was last season — will have to do it while adjusting to offensive line coach Adrian Klemm and the promotion of former quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator.

No pressure or anything.

“If I get the spot … I’m ready to compete and also learn from the older guys,” he said.

Green proved a quick study at Illinois. Initially recruited as a defensive lineman, he needed just three months to adjust to playing on the other side of the ball, fulfilling a prediction by former Illini staff member James Kirkland in the process.

“(He) used to get on me, ‘Man you’d be way better on the O-line,’” Green said. “I wasn’t trying to hear it, being young.”

Turns out, Kirkland was right. Green started his final 33 games for the Illini and impressed pro scouts with his combination of intelligence and athleticism. He’ll need to rely on both if he wants to do what Pouncey did as a rookie in 2010: start all 16 games and help the Steelers reach the Super Bowl.

Pouncey reached out to his heir apparent immediately after the draft, but the two haven’t spoken since the team announced Green would be donning the same number.

“I can’t really put too much expectations on myself,” Green said with a shrug. “My goal is I’m going to show up and compete and get as much out of every day as possible.”

Waging a war with perhaps outsized expectations is a battle that’s not limited to Green. Rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth has been dealing with it since being dubbed “Baby Gronk” while growing up in the Boston suburbs during the prime of former New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski.

Freiermuth — who at 6-foot-5 and 258 pounds is just an inch shorter and 7 pounds lighter than Gronkowski — understands why he’s been saddled with the moniker. That doesn’t necessarily mean he likes it.

“I hate it honestly, because I think it’s pretty annoying,” Freiermuth said. “I’m trying to get away from that nickname.”

Even if he does, another one might follow. The Steelers have been looking for a tight end who excels at both blocking and receiving since Heath Miller’s retirement after the 2015 season. Pittsburgh basically split the job in two last season, with Vance McDonald handling the blocking while Eric Ebron did most of the route running on his way to five touchdowns.

McDonald called it a career in January, leaving an empty space in both the huddle and the locker room. Freiermuth may fill it on both fronts. He’s already taken over the locker spot next to Roethlisberger, the one that was long reserved for McDonald.

Pittsburgh’s four rookie draft picks — Green, Freiermuth, Harris and tackle Dan Moore Jr. — are all having dinner with Roethlisberger on Saturday night. Each of them were in kindergarten or younger when Roethlisberger arrived in 2004. Now they find themselves as vital cogs in making sure Roethlisberger’s final year (or maybe years) is not played in vain.

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