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Offseason Program

On-the-job training

The sixth OTA of the spring today was the first the Steelers conducted without second-year pro Jerald Hawkins, the penciled-in backup behind starting offensive tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert.

"I saw 'quad,'" guard Ramon Foster said of the injury Hawkins suffered on Wednesday. "They haven't told us exactly what it was, but that's not good, either."

Added guard David DeCastro: "It's not a good one, but we have good technology and a good (medical) staff, so he's in good hands.

"It sucks, man, it hurts," DeCastro continued. "We were just talking about how well 'Hawk' was playing. Football's a brutal game, it really is. A guy like that, a young guy who's made some good strides and got some good reps for us in the games (last season), you just feel for him. You feel for this team.

"Obviously, 'Chuks' has a big role to fill."

'Chuks' is Chukwuma Okorafor, a rookie third-round draft pick from Western Michigan who was suddenly being discussed today as the heir apparent to Hawkins at the swing offensive tackle position, the first offensive tackle off the bench on either side.

"Our new guy is going to have to step up and show us what he's capable of," Gilbert said. "He's been showing a lot of promise out here. He just has to keep building, knowing he's a play away from being that guy.

"That's what we drafted him for. He has all the pedigree, athletic ability, looks great. He has to just keep coming along and doing what we ask him to do, keep quiet and just come into work every day. I like his attitude."

DeCastro likes the support Okorafor will have to lean on as he transitions.

"He has a good (position) group, a good coach (offensive line coach Mike Munchak) and we'll do our best to get him ready," DeCastro said.

Okorafor is a native of Nigeria whose family immigrated to the United States from Botswana in 2010. He didn't start playing football until his sophomore year at Southfield High School in suburban Detroit, where he was a punter and kicker initially.

But at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, he looks the part for the role the Steelers' offensive linemen envision him filling in Hawkins' absence.

"You'd just think, with a pedigree guy that we think can do the job, yeah," Foster said. "There's a lot of other guys that have to step up, period. I don't want to have to be using the tight end in a tackle situation.

"With Jerald going down yesterday, the first thing I said to (Okorafor) was, 'Hey, the physical part will take care of itself. The mental part now is where you have to start stepping it up. That mental part bleeds into your physicality.'

"I think he'll be fine. I see a lot of raw talent. He's a guy that's a physical specimen. Once he gets the mental part of the game down he could be a franchise tackle, either right or left."

Today's OTA was a small but significant step in that direction.

Foster watched it unfold.

"Sometimes you get a chance to see where you are," Foster explained. "That's what's so special about this OTA atmosphere. You get a chance for the No. 2s (the second team) to go against the No. 1s (the first team). And if they hold up well, you're like, 'Hey, we got something.' If there's some stuff going on, you're like, 'This is where you need to be at.'"

Foster was particularly interested in watching outside linebacker T.J. Watt go against Okorafor.

"I saw it," Foster said. "He's gotta learn. The first thing I told him, 'Don't let it bleed over. T.J. is T.J. He's not going to quit because you're a rookie, he salivates at that.'

"(Okorafor) had a day, I'll leave it at that. He had a learning day."