Minicamp Blog: Job done, results pending

The Steelers are holding their mandatory veteran minicamp at Heinz Field on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

Follow along all week in our blog for all of the latest news from the players and coaches as they wrapup the offseason program.

Thursday, June 17

Job done, results pending

The three weeks of OTAs and the three days of Mandatory Veteran Minicamp that concluded today were worthwhile endeavors, Mike Tomlin suspects.

But the Steelers' head coach at the same time understands it's still far too early to know for certain.

"We kind of measure these processes on performance, and so it's 'stay tuned,'" Tomlin concluded today at Heinz Field. "Hopefully, we're setting guys up and putting them in position to have the type of impact that we need them to have and they desire to have. But I never really kind of measure or evaluate this component of the calendar until I assess 2021, so stay tuned.

"I do take good notes. I do like some of the things we were able to get done. But largely, I'll reserve any judgement until I look at the journey."

A stated goal since the conclusion of last season has been to make the offense more physical.

Although no hitting was done over the last month, Tomlin emerged confident significant steps had been taken in that direction.

"With everything that we do we have an opportunity to build and develop our personality, not only through physical labor but mental approach," Tomlin said. "Although we're not carrying pads, yes, we are laying the foundation for that agenda."

COVID-19 protocols remain a much-discussed subject in a rapidly changing NFL landscape.

But that hasn't altered the Steelers' intended approach, or what Tomlin thinks of the latest adaptations to NFL policy.

"I really don't have any thoughts," he said. "Thoughts are a waste of time for me. I'm gonna do like we've always done and that's adhere to the protocol to the letter.

"Our team is going to have the same mentality. We're not going to allow it to become a distraction or a discussion. It simply is what it is and we'll deal with it."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

There's only one way to rock

The offensive linemen may not have hit anyone yet but if anything has been made clear through OTAs and Mandatory Veteran Minicamp, it's the mandate to do so with physicality and aggression once the pads eventually come on.

New offensive line coach Adrian Klemm will accept nothing less.

"You can't stray away from it," Klemm said. "You set the tone for what it's going to be and you create an environment in a room, carry that out to the field. You're demanding of it every, single day.

"It's not that we're trying to find ourselves; this is who we're gonna be. If you're gonna live in this world that's how we're gonna live. If you can't do it, you'll be at home or you'll be on the sideline with a hat on. It's not a democracy in our room; this is what it is."

The demeanor and personality Klemm is after have been much-discussed over the last month.

Implementation is yet to come, but the Steelers have emerged from their offseason program headed in the right direction individually and collectively.

"It's not about talking about it every day," Klemm said. "It's about (new offensive coordinator) Matt (Canada) designing plays that put us in situations that we can be physical. It's about making it so there's not that need for a ton of communication and plays where guys have to do a lot of reading and thinking. It's running and taking advantage of their natural athleticism and allowing them to be physical. Not overcomplicating things, simplifying things where we can so they can be as physical as possible.

"The majority of our guys already have it in them. Once you create that culture, you just feed off of it and you grow. We're nowhere near where we need to be but there's been some gains made in that direction and it's encouraging and I'm excited about it."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

The Steelers participate in day 3 of the 2021 minicamp at Heinz Field

Great expectations at tight end

Veteran tight end Eric Ebron has seen enough of second-round pick Pat Freiermuth to be intrigued.

"Pat's gonna be good, man, Pat's gonna be pretty good," Ebron assessed. "It's hard to dictate what everyone looks like in shorts and helmets, because everyone looks good. But I'm excited to see him grow as a tight end. It's a lot of information we're throwing at him. It's a lot of different things he needs to know at this position.

"I'm just looking forward to see him grow, man. To me, he's just a smooth playmaker. He's silky smooth, he doesn't look like he's trying too hard and he's capable of a lot. He asks a lot of questions, which is good. He's really easy to talk to, which is cool. I look forward to seeing him grow in this league. It's gonna be fun to watch him."

Ebron is also excited about the role he anticipates the tight ends will be playing in the scheme of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. 

"It gets me very excited," Ebron said. "I think I'll be featured a lot more. The tight end position, period, I feel like will be featured a lot more. Having Pat and some of the other guys we have, our tight end room is pretty strong.

"From the three days that I've been here, well, two, we've dominated. And I say that with emphasis because I feel like our room is pretty good and I feel like we should carry a lot of stress upon our room to be great every week because we're very capable of that, especially in Canada's offense."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

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Showing his love for football

Dwayne Haskins sounds like a man with a new lease on his football life, ready to make the most of it with the Steelers.

Haskins was drafted in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, the No. 15 pick overall, by the Washington Football Team. He has completed 267 of 444 pass attempts for 2,804 yards (60.1%) with 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in two seasons.

In 2020 he completed 148 of 241 passes for 1,439 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions, before being released by Washington, a move he admitted surprised him.

"It was for sure humbling," said Haskins. "I just wanted to be in a place where I was wanted, and I am wanted here. I am thankful for the opportunity to be somewhere where I feel like I can be myself and play ball and not worry about the other stuff that comes along with it."

He is putting the past behind him and is ready to make his mark in black and gold.

"Just coming here to Pittsburgh, I wanted to prove to the coaching staff and my teammates how much I love football," said Haskins. "I am grateful for the opportunity to be here. My mind is in the right place. I am wiling to work to show my talents and be able to earn a spot here. Being able to be here now, I want to work hard and figure things out together."

Haskins said he has been welcomed by everyone and has already built a strong bond with the others in the quarterbacks' room, all who are helping him with the adjustment.

"It's been great," said Haskins. "I had a prior relationship with Josh (Dobbs). I have known him since college. He has been really great being able to help me with the nuances of the offense. I worked out with Mason (Rudolph) in the offseason, knew him prior to minicamp and OTAs. I have been a big 'Big Ben' (Roethlisberger) fan for a while.

Just to be in the quarterback room with these guys and learn from them. Coach (Mike) Sullivan has also been great. He coached Eli Manning during his Super Bowl run. Just having those guys know a lot about football and doing their best to help me out it's been a great experience."

Another person who has been in Haskins' corner is Coach Mike Tomlin. Tomlin said on Wednesday his number one goal is to get to know Haskins the person, which is something the quarterback welcomes.

"Relationships are everything, on the field, off the field," said Haskins. "Coach Tomlin has been a great guy as far as getting to know me, as far as what I need to do as a quarterback and what I need to do off the field. He has been very hands on with me and our communication. I am grateful for a Hall of Fame coach to take the time as far as helping me out. He has made that known to me. He has been a motivator talking to me. He has been great. Everything I have heard about him is true and everyone around here loves him."

Haskins knows there are expectations on for him from many with his pedigree, but also has high expectations for himself.

"My expectation here is to make everyone who took a chance on me look good," said Haskins. "Work as hard as I possibly can and let my work speak for itself. I want to take over after Big Ben, but that comes with due time. They expect a lot out of me as far as being prepared.

"I love Pittsburgh. I will do what I can to leave my mark here."

-- Blog entry by Teresa Varley

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Staying focused

The band is back.

That is the feeling in the Steelers receivers' room, where the full complement from 2020 is in the mix in 2021 after JuJu Smith-Schuster re-signed for one year, and it's something that has them feeling good.

"Just by him coming back, that brings back the chemistry the group has as a whole," said Diontae Johnson. "We are a really tight group. We all get along with one another. Just having him back it's fun."

There is another weapon that can help the group even more this year, and he's coming from the running backs room. First-round pick Najee Harris is already showing during the offseason what kind of weapon he can be in the passing game, something the receivers are looking forward to.

"It's different," said Johnson of Harris' pass catching ability. "It takes a lot of pressure off the receivers having a guy like him being able to catch out of the backfield like that. It's special because it also puts a lot of pressure on the defense too because they have to worry about covering a running back who is capable of catching like a receiver.

"Being around him, his work ethic, how hard practice shows he is hungry and ready to play."

Johnson is hungry too. He is coming off a season where he admitted he had struggled with some drops, the result of losing focus on the ball because he was thinking about the run before the catch. He spent time this offseason working on his focus and is now ready to show that what happened in 2020 won't happen again.

"I have been working on everything," said Johnson. "You can't focus on one specific thing. Yeah, I had drops last year but that comes with focus and stuff like that. Just having confidence in myself. I have been believing in myself every time and knowing every time that ball comes my way, I am going to make that catch."

While many players spend endless hours catching more footballs to get that focus back, Johnson went a different route this offseason.

"I have been catching on my tennis ball machine I bought this offseason," said Johnson. "It's a smaller target so you have to focus on the ball. It's not a big object coming at you. Now when I catch a football, it's always been easy to me, but it's that focus and keeping it.

"Taking your eye off the ball that one split second. That is the main thing. Focus. I have been focusing on catch first, run second."

-- Blog entry by Teresa Varley

Wednesday, June 16

Taking the next step

The Steelers are on the doorstep of completing their offseason program, with Day 2 of the team's three-day mandatory minicamp at Heinz Field in the books.

Coach Mike Tomlin likes the progression he is seeing from the team, with them learning from everything they are putting on tape.

"We have some tape from yesterday to teach and learn from," said Tomlin. "It's always a good time of year to evaluate that adjustment or that teaching and learning aspect of tape. Yesterday's tape provided something for us to talk about this morning and this afternoon provided us an opportunity to make corrections or display understanding or progress in all three phases. Collectively that's how we all get better in this process. I felt good about that today.

"I liked the collective attention of the group and the energy they are bringing. By no means are we football ready yet, but I doubt that anybody is if they are being honest with themselves this time of year."

Football ready, no. But ready to take that next step is definitely where some of the team's second-year players are, in particular defensive backs James Pierre and Antoine Brooks Jr.

Pierre made the 53-man roster in 2020 as an undrafted rookie, and played in all 16 games on special teams, but seeing some reps on defense, and finished the year with 10 tackles, including seven solo stops. Coaches and teammates have been singing Pierre's praise during minicamp and Tomlin expects him to continue to grow and step up.

"He is one of those second-year guys that we all have high expectations for," said Tomlin. "I think it's reasonable when you've been around a guy that's been in the program and understands what to expect, what is needed of him physically, mentally and so forth. I think we are looking for all of those second-year players to gain experience. That guy gained a lot of experience last year. He didn't play a lot of defense, but he had a helmet every week, he was preparing every week. He was a critical component of our special teams unit and that is usually an indication that a guy is ready to proceed and advance, and I think it's reasonable to expect him to do so."

Brooks, a sixth-round pick in 2020, had an up and down season in 2020, going from the practice squad, to the Active/Inactive roster multiple times, and eventually on the 53-man roster. Brooks saw his first game action in Week 9 against Dallas, and the following week against the Cincinnati Bengals finished with two tackles, one solo and one assist. He is among those who could be in the mix for the nickel position vacated by the departure of Mike Hilton.

"He played the slot for us some last year in regular season football games when Mike Hilton missed a block of time," said Tomlin. "One specifically here at home he probably played 25 plus snaps on defense. His college resume indicates he has capability in that area. We worked him there in the past. He's had some success. He will be given an opportunity to grow and develop and display those skills. We'll determine when we get closer to action how we divide the labor and who does what. But he's done a good job of that thus far."

Both young players are relying on the leadership of veterans to get them where they need to be, including Joe Haden who brings the secondary together.

"Joe is a leader in the secondary," said Tomlin. "Joe is a natural leader. He wears that in a very natural way, a very welcoming way. He calms the waters if you will. He is a guy that displays veteran presence and poise almost in all circumstances. His presence is always valued."

The Steelers participate in day 2 of the 2021 minicamp at Heinz Field

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Getting mad, getting even

Second-year cornerback James Pierre wasn't happy with the first day of mandatory veteran minicamp on Tuesday, with one play in particular.

So he did something about it today.

"I had one bad play, guy caught the ball, I just took it personal," Pierre explained. "I came in with the right mindset.

"I should come in every day like that. I was on myself for letting somebody catch the ball. I woke up early, earlier than I usually do, attacked the day with the right mindset."

Pierre, a candidate for more playing time in a transitioning secondary after excelling on special teams as an undrafted rookie last season, responded with a pair of interceptions this afternoon.

The one that came in a two-minute drill was Pierre's favorite of the two.

"I like the two-minute because it actually got the guys, got the whole team, the energy of the defense, just to see the guys turning up with me," Pierre said. "The two minute, to end it, it's just a good feeling just to see the guys pumped, the energy of the defense."

It may have been a bigger deal that both of the passes Pierre intercepted were thrown by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

"To be honest, Ben is not just throwing anybody a ball," Pierre said. "It's precious to get one of those. It's hard to get it from Ben so when I got those it kinda made me smile. But just to see the other guys, it made me happier.

"And then after practice Ben came up to me, told me good job, gave me a fist bump. It built my confidence a little bit."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

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The more you can do

Listed on the roster at 6-foot and 255 pounds, seventh-round pick Pressley Harvin III is anything but a typical punter.

As a result, Harvin may be asked to do more than punt.

"The best thing we can do with this guy is, you know about the quarterback sneak play? You're gonna see a punt-sneak play with this big dude," special teams coordinator Danny Smith insisted. "That's the first thing we started working on.

"Maybe he can get a yard."

Smith was kidding about the "sneak" part, but he still maintained Harvin will be required to do a lot more than merely kick the ball far.

"A strong leg isn't just the answer," Smith said. "There's a lot of strong legs out there that don't make it in this league. I call it, 'You gotta have game.' You gotta be able to pooch punt. You gotta be able to put the ball out of bounds. You gotta have a good get-off time. You gotta hold (for place kicks), in most cases. There's a lot of factors involved and those are the kinds of things we're working on.

"But we are very excited about him and very excited about working with him. We'll see how it all unfolds."

Harvin has experience as a holder from his days at Georgia Tech, but he didn't hold on a full-time basis.

"They had a situation at Georgia Tech that they used two kickers," Smith explained. "It was much like a pitcher and a catcher, one had a holder that he liked and the other one had a holder that he liked, so you could call it part-time holding. When his guy kicked, he held. When the other guy kicked, the other guy held.

"So yes, he has experience holding. Yes, he's quite capable. Yes, he has a lot to learn to perfect it."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

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Sorting out cornerback options

The plan, as outlined by senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin, is to keep cornerback Cam Sutton playing outside initially in the position vacated by Steven Nelson's departure.

That'll provide the Steelers an opportunity to evaluate whether they have adequate replacements for the nickel cornerback job that opened up when Mike Hilton left via free agency, and for the inside role Sutton formerly handled in the six-defensive backs "dime" defense.

"I know Cam can play inside," Austin said. "We're letting these other guys kind of work inside to see what we have.

"I know for a fact Cam would not need a lot of reps if he had to move inside."

One of the first in line among the candidates to pick up where Hilton left off is Antoine Brooks, a sixth-round pick out of Maryland who played sparingly as a rookie in 2020.

"He is an option," Austin said. "That's where he's working. That's really, when you looked at him coming out of Maryland, he was listed as a safety but he basically played a nickel-type position and he was very productive there. He still has a ways to go but I think the progress is coming. It's really important that we did have an offseason this year, and that'll allow him to have an opportunity to win the job in there.

"There's still a long ways to go and we're just going to see how it plays out. But I do like his progress, he is working hard at it and I think that's really the position that he can help us moving forward."

Whoever ends up replacing Hilton will need to show a similar affinity for blitzing.

"That's one of the things that's pretty important for our defense," Austin said. "That guy's gotta be a part-corner, part-linebacker, and if he's not a very good blitzer then that limits you in terms of some of the things, scheme-wise, you do.

"We're hoping that the person that ends up in there has the ability, we know he won't be Mike but has the ability to do those similar-type things."

If such a player ultimately isn't discovered and Sutton winds up moving inside on a regular basis, Austin has confidence in second-year pro James Pierre and third-year pro Justin Layne to handle periodic assignments outside.

Both have dabbled in such a role in the past.

"I like our young guys," Austin said. "I like James Pierre. I like J-Layne. Ability wise, James and J-Layne I know for sure have ability to play in this league and be quality players. It just depends on how fast and how far they progress.

"I'm comfortable there, but i'm also aware that if we have a way to better our team and it happens to be an outside guy then I'm more than happy to have him, as well."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

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Let's get physical

If there is a theme that has been common during minicamp, and the entire offseason for that matter, it's been physicality on offense.

Last year the Steelers ground game was ranked last in the NFL. To get it back to where it should be, to what the norm is, the focus on offense has been instilling a physical approach. It starts up front with the line, moves to the tight ends and the backfield. But it's also key that the receiving corps also brings the heat.

"Our guys that have size need to utilize that with JuJu (Smith-Schuster) and Chase (Claypool)," said receivers coach Ike Hilliard. "Other guys in terms of physicality, whether it's in the run or pass game, it all starts with hand usage and fits. With the running game we all know we want to improve. A big component of that is what we are going to do on the perimeter as a receiving group. We are going to have to make our fits, blocking safeties and corners, in order to help our running backs get off and continue to grow in the area of press coverage where we get off the line of scrimmage so we can get down field and execute our assignments."

While being physical will be one of the primary focuses, it won't be the only one. In 2020 the receivers were plagued with dropped passes, something Hilliard has addressed with the group.

"Unfortunately, drops are part of the game," said Hilliard. "Obviously, we had too many balls on the ground. It's been discussed. Our group understands and they know we have to do a better job of not putting the ball on the ground. We work at it every day. We're going to be cognizant of limiting our drops going forward."

Hilliard has his entire receiving corps from last season back in the fold this year after Smith-Schuster was re-signed to a one-year contract. Now it's just a matter of putting them all in the perfect spot to make plays, something that has also been a hot topic as Smith-Schuster said he wanted to move from his slot spot to the outside and see more time there.

"We're working on becoming an offense where we can plug and play guys based off the system," said Hilliard. "With JuJu having an aspiration to play outside, inside, wherever, we're going to do the best we can as a coaching staff to get the best players in the best position to make plays so their skillsets can take over. JuJu is going to be a big part of that."

-- Blog entry by Teresa Varley

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Speed matters

Joe Haden got a huge smile on his face and made it clear.

"I don't want no parts of the slot," laughed Haden.

He won't have to worry about that. And he knows it.

Haden was actually talking about not wanting the role fellow corner Cameron Sutton somehow manages to do, playing outside or inside in the slot, or whatever they ask of him.

Sutton has been the jack-of-all-trades for the secondary, although this year he will have a more defined role as a starting corner with Haden after Steven Nelson was released this offseason.

"It's a different ball game on the inside," said Haden. "Those little slot receivers, the route trees are totally different. Just timing and stuff like that. Cam Sutton, that is what he does. He is a great inside and outside guy. I am more of an outside guy. I don't want no parts of the slot. Cam is able to play both at such a high level. He is able to go inside and outside. Cam is a Swiss Army knife. He can do a little bit of everything.

"Cam Sutton is going to be able to thrive on the outside corner. He is a great nickel and outside guy. He is going to be a solid corner starter in the league."

Haden said he did play inside and outside early in his career but admits it's something that is a completely different animal and one he doesn't mind steering clear of.

"I can do it," said Haden. "The studying, it's just a lot harder when you are playing the nickel back position. We have a lot of defenses. on the outside corner it's more basic. On the inside there are so many different calls. It's a lot. Cam did a really good job. He knows the entire defense. He knows what is going on. And being able to cover those smaller quicker dudes, you have to be very, very quick. That is just what he does."

At corner, speed does matter. Which is why Haden, who is entering his 12th season, spent a lot of his offseason working on that speed rather than hitting the weight room hard.

"Getting older I just have to keep my speed," said Haden. "It's less lifting weights, it's more conditioning, training, running, keeping that speed. That is the first thing that goes when you get older as a corner is the speed. If you can't keep up with those dudes, that's what starts to get your game out of there. Above the neck I am so much smarter, I just work on keeping my speed up."

-- Blog entry by Teresa Varley

Tuesday, June 15

A lot on the agenda

The Steelers moved their operations from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex to Heinz Field for the team's three-day mandatory minicamp, giving players new to the black and gold this year an opportunity to get a feel for the place they will be calling home when the season starts.

"We chose to work over here at the stadium," said Coach Mike Tomlin following Tuesday's practice. "We always want to give the new Steelers, whether it's a guy going from college to pro or a guy that's new to us, a feeling of what this facility is like, how to move around it and get comfortable working in this environment. We're excited about doing that today."

While the venue has changed, and there are a few more players on hand, the practices and goal are relatively similar to what takes place during OTAs. There is no hitting that takes place and as Tomlin said, it's 'football-like, not football.'

"We've got a lot of things on our agenda," said Tomlin. "General conditioning is always where we start. Making sure we walk out of here with an understanding that physical condition precedes any other discussion. The best thing the guys can do between now and training camp is ready themselves in that way. Making points in that regard.

"We're also talking schematics. We've done some new things offensively and getting an opportunity to wrap a bow around that. We're also doing some new things defensively as well, getting an opportunity to work in totality."

With the work being more conditioning and drill-based, giving an evaluation on the progress of younger players is something Tomlin steers clear of this time of year, knowing it wouldn't be a fair evaluation. He was asked specifically about the young defensive backs, which include Justin Layne and James Pierre, and their progress as the team tries to fill the holes with Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton not back for 2021.

"I haven't seen a lot," said Tomlin. "This is football-like, it's not football. It's drill work. Were' teaching and learning and getting the opportunity to compete, but it's in a controlled sort of way that evaluations are fruitless. I could spend time trying to evaluate and get a litmus, but those opinions may change quickly when we get in real football circumstances here later in the summer. I reserve that judgment. I am really focused on the teaching and the learning and how they communicate and whether they are putting themselves in position to be players or playmakers. From that standpoint it's so far so good, but there are so many things you can't glean from football in the manner we are doing it now. It's unfair to evaluate from those circumstances."

While he didn't weigh in on the progress this offseason, Tomlin did address what he saw from Pierre last year, when he made the roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.

"I saw consistent varsity gunner play," said Tomlin. "Oftentimes when you have that level of consistency and performance in a special teams area, it's often an indication of advancement, or maturity and growth opportunity in the other phases as well. I think over the course of my time here the young guys that are consistent and perform in that area usually ascend within the offense or defensive unit, so it's reasonable to expect him to do that. He got a lot of in game experience last year, although it was in the special teams area. I think that field time and game speed exposure will help him in his growth and development. I think it's reasonable to expect him to utilize that experience as a catalyst for his growth on defense."

-- Blog entry by Teresa Varley

Tomlin Tidbits:

* Coach Tomlin was asked about the Steelers progress as far as players being vaccinated for COVID-19.

"I like our overall trajectory of our participation in the vaccination process," said Tomlin. "Guys are working hard to adhere to the polices and the protocols. It's just been a continuation of 2020 in regard to our attitude. We are going to work hard to adhere. We will look for an advantage that compliance might get us. Participation has been awesome from what I understand. We are doing really well relative to the rest of our peers. We just hope to continue to work in that area and hopefully it is a winning edge as we proceed. From what I understand, we are tops in the league in terms of this process."

* The Steelers had a strong turnout for the first day of minicamp, with Stephon Tuitt an excused absence after a tragic death in his family.

"Everyone knows the personal circumstance that Stephon Tuitt and his family is going through," said Tomlin. "He has our full support, and our hearts go out to him and his loved ones for their loss."

* And finally, Tomlin weighed in on how second-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith can form a bond with T.J. Watt the way Watt and Bud Dupree had.

"It starts first with two really good players," said Tomlin. "The best thing that Alex can do is continue to sharpen his skills and get better and grow and develop as a player. You know we've got great expectations for a second-year guy in terms of proceeding in his career and taking a step not only in understanding the preparedness, but production and consistency. He's been a highly professional, mature young man, and so I think it's reasonable to expect those things to happen. But make no mistake, before you start talking about dynamic duos and tandems and so forth, it requires two big-time, varsity players. And so he's working to grow and improve his game."

-- Blog entry by Teresa Varley