LATROBE, Pa – There are a lot of things that are going to be different. A different quarterback. A different look to the offense. Different defensive coordinator. Some different assistant coaches. A different general manager. Some other different people atop the Football Operations department. And the typical complement of different players.
But for Coach Mike Tomlin, there is a familiarity to it, a sameness that runs even deeper than a return to Saint Vincent College for the first time since the summer of 2019. And it was clear from the excitement in his voice as he participated Tuesday in his camp-opening news conference that it's genuine.
"I had that mindset in 1979, man, when I was putting my mouthpiece in the boiling water getting ready for youth football," said Tomlin following the team's conditioning test. "I just love it. I always have. Since I was 7 years old, I've been a part of a football team, and this time of year means something. Those of us who have been in this thing in any capacity, in any role, we like that feeling. We understand what that feeling is. When I lack that excitement, that's probably when it's time for me to move on to something else. I didn't boil a mouthpiece today, but I'm ready nonetheless."
Based on how Tomlin began the 30-minute session with the assembled media, he wasn't the only one who arrived ready.
"We're really excited to be here. It's awesome to get started," said Tomlin. "Let's talk about some observations. I just told the team I was really excited about a couple minor yet important things that I saw to this point: No. 1, everyone was on time; No. 2, everybody was appropriately conditioned.
"Those two things, although minor, are significant in terms of people displaying a willingness to contribute to what it is that we're doing here. To develop individually and to develop collectively, to divide the labor and grow, it starts there. In order to get the train out of the station, some fundamental things, some base things have to happen. I like what I've seen from the group to this point in terms of their overall readiness in that regard."
It wasn't long into the question-and-answer portion of the gathering before Tomlin was asked what he acknowledged as "the elephant in the room," i.e., the competition to follow Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers starting quarterback. The training camp chapter of that process will begin at the same place the offseason program chapter of it ended at the conclusion of minicamp.
At that time, the depth chart listed the quarterbacks this way, in descending order: Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, and Chris Oladokun. And Tomlin confirmed that's the way things will begin when the team takes the field on Wednesday afternoon for the first practice of this camp.
"We're not going to micromanage or overmanage this quarterback competition," said Tomlin. "The depth chart will not rest on every throw. I know that you guys will want to ask me every day and after every throw, but we're going to be a little bit more steady than that. I think it's important from a leadership perspective to not overmanage it, to not be too impulsive, so that's what I've relayed to those guys, and our actions will continue to display that mindset."
Tomlin also said he's not going to over-think things either, such as worrying about how Pickett, as a rookie, develops as a leader.
"I'm not overly concerned about that narrative," said Tomlin. "I think when you're 22, 23, 24 years old and you've been playing quarterback your whole life, you understand those informal responsibilities that come with the position. I'm more concerned about tangible things, (such as) accuracy, taking care of the ball, and things of that nature. I don't have any level of concern about those other things being in his wheelhouse. I watched him do it next door in terms of leading his guys and being what we need quarterbacks to be. I don't think that's going to be a significant discussion."
Neither will be the issue of finding enough practice reps for the candidates.
"About every year we've been here, we've carried four guys into camp, and there have been some rep management things to address from that perspective," said Tomlin. "We've got four quarterbacks. We generally run in three groups. So there's some things to manage from a rep standpoint. But again, that has been the case for the 15 years or 16 years that I've been here."
And for 14 of the summers Tomlin has been the Steelers coach, everything has started at Saint Vincent College, and he's just as certain there's value in that as he was before the pandemic.
"It's the opportunity to capture the intangible, that which we cannot measure, the informal time that going away to camp provides you, those moments where a veteran guy gets a chance to spend time with a young guy on the stoop out back at night, or in between meetings, or after dinner," said Tomlin. "I just think there's value in that, there's growth, there's collective growth in that, and I'm excited about what that environment provides us from that perspective.
"Although you can't measure it, you acknowledge that it existed, and you acknowledge that it existed by working at it. That's what I'm challenging the team to do, to give of themselves, their time, their space, their knowledge, their experience while we're here, formally and informally."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE:
"A few health-related things. Minkah will be placed on NFI (non-football injury list). He sustained a wrist injury on vacation. I think he fell off a bike. It will create some short-term discomfort, but I don't expect it to be an issue in the overall trajectory of his development and his place within this group and stadium availability and things of that nature. It's just going to create some discomfort for him at the early stages of this.
"Tyson Alualu has been placed on PUP. He has a knee that's been swelling on him a little bit, probably from overtraining. Similar discussion as Minkah. We don't expect it to be significant from a long-term perspective, but it will create some discomfort here at the early stages. We'll monitor those guys. There are some other guys with minor things that we'll manage from a rep standpoint, but it won't affect their designation in terms of participation.
"Larry Ogunjobi is coming off surgery. We will exercise caution, because he's new here and new to us. So as we get to know him, we're going to proceed with caution so we get a better understanding of how his body works, and so that we take no steps backward as we proceed. So, I wouldn't read too much into his lack of participation. It's really just more of a "to get to know."