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Labriola on Friday Night Lights, young ILBs, Haden

LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:

• What began as simply an effort by rookie coach Bill Cowher to force his players to learn to ready themselves for football activities at different time of the day – to mirror the varied kickoff times of NFL regular season games – has morphed into the signature event of each and every Steelers training camp.

• When it began back in 1992, it had no name, but now everyone associated with the franchise, plus the local and national media that cover professional football, recognize it as Friday Night Lights. It got that name for two main reasons – it’s held at a high school stadium on a Friday night, and the Steelers arrive in yellow school buses.

• The 27th installment will be staged tonight, at the same location as the inaugural version. Latrobe Memorial Stadium. Then as now, ticket sales benefit a local charity. Then as now, the 50-50 drawing is definitely worth entering for fans in attendance, and then as now, the evening’s festivities will begin with a team-wide autograph session.

• That’s team-wide, as in everyone participates. Fans will arrive hours early to stake out what they hope turns out to be a prime spot along the fence that rings what every other day of the year is a high school field. When the Steelers players and coaches arrive, each one is handed a Sharpie, and then each one picks a spot somewhere along that fence and starts signing.

• That hasn’t changed. What has changed is the action on the field that follows. Maybe because it was new and he was caught up in the excitement of a packed house coming out for a practice, Cowher did what he could, within reason, to make it an event. And it always was punctuated by the goal-line drill, a series of about four-to-six plays with the ball at the 2-yard line. Full contact. Live tackling. And a good deal of trash-talking.

• On that inaugural Friday night, a rookie linebacker named Levon Kirkland, the team’s second-round pick from Clemson, announced his presence when he stoned veteran running back Leroy Thompson with a hit that sounded like a car wreck.

• In 1995, rookie quarterback Kordell Stewart, in his pre-Slash days, ran a triple-option toward outside linebacker Chad Brown, a former Colorado teammate. Stewart kept the ball as Brown strung the play out, and just before Stewart got to the sideline he made a move and faked a pitch to the trailing back that buckled Brown’s knees a bit, and then Stewart strolled across the goal line untouched. Think, an Allen Iverson crossover but in shoulder pads.

• Mike Tomlin has embraced Friday Night Lights, but his preferred approach to it has been to treat it more as a regular practice. There’s no big crescendo to a finale of goal-line, but Tomlin does incorporate several competition periods into the proceedings so it does end up being a physical session that the fans typically enjoy.

• In recent years, the summer’s second installment of backs-on-backers has opened the competition periods, and what Tomlin will be looking for should that drill again be a part of the festivities is a bounce-back by the guys who were victimized during the first installment held back on July 28, while also seeing whether the players who looked good in the drill the first time can build upon that performance.

• One who will be looking to build upon a solid performance is undrafted rookie Matthew Thomas, an inside linebacker from Florida State. By my scorekeeping, Thomas was undefeated in the first session, and he is looking to be someone with a legitimate chance to make this 53-man roster.

• Thomas was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, but he was beset by some personal issues at Florida State, including the death of his mother, that served to sidetrack his career there. Because of his issues in Tallahassee, Thomas went undrafted, but the raw talent that had him so highly regarded coming out of high school is evident and the Steelers believe they can turn him into an NFL player.

• During OTAs, Thomas was attracting a lot of attention from Tomlin, and when undrafted rookies are getting that treatment from the head coach it usually means the team sees something in the player it likes.

• Another inside linebacker who has had a nice week of work in pads is Matt Galambos, another undrafted rookie but he came to the team from Pitt in 2017. Galambos had a nice session of backs-on-backers on July 28. At 6-foot-1, 239 pounds, Galambos doesn’t have eye-popping measurables, but he’s always around the football. In many ways, Galambos is similar to the guy coaching him right now – Jerry Olsavsky – a 10th-round draft pick in 1989 who ended up playing 10 NFL seasons.

• What Galambos needs to do over the next month is find a way to make himself indispensable on special teams.

• James Conner had his rookie season ruined by injuries sustained early in the offseason program and then once the team arrived here for training camp. Today, Conner is the best running back on the roster. Like a lot of players entering their second NFL seasons, he used this past offseason to prepare his body for the physical demands of camp. He has been healthy, and therefore he has been practicing. Those two things, if they continue, should allow him to be a viable option for the offense at the start of the season should Le’Veon Bell show signs of rust.

• During his first couple of seasons with the Steelers, Artie Burns got tutored by Antonio Brown. It was a series of lessons taught the hard way, that being Burns getting beaten regularly in one-on-one matchups against the best receiver in football. Burns has been winning more of those this summer than in the previous two, and he also has acquired another tutor.

• “Having a veteran guy in your (position) room who got to the level everybody wants to get to, you kind of sit back and think, ‘What can I learn from him to get to that point?’” said Burns. “That’s what Joe’s doing for us.”

• The “Joe” to whom Burns is referring is Joe Haden, and having him in this camp from the beginning should do a lot for the young players in that group. And actually, they’re all young players in that group, either in terms of age or in terms of time spent in a Steelers uniform.

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