The Pittsburgh Steelers will open their 42nd training camp at Saint Vincent College today when all players are required to report by 4 p.m. Of the 26 scheduled practices, 15 will be open to the public.
"Specifically about training camp, our goal is going to be simple, and that is to come out of training camp a unified, hardened group," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "The work that we have to do in training camp is work with 81 potential guys and then come away with the 53 men we feel give us the best chance of winning as a football team. That is what training camp is all about. We have a bunch of questions to ask, a bunch of questions to answer and collectively I think we are all excited about this next phase."
The following are some of the highlights of Mike Tomlin's pre-training camp news conference:
Are there any personnel questions that stand out in your mind?
TOMLIN: Some of the obvious ones that have been talked about are the cohesion and the development of our offensive line. Of course that is a question. We will be looking at a new third quarterback, that will be a question. We have some new role players in the running back position. The division of labor at that position will be interesting. We have the development of some second-year players who contributed for us last year. They will be called on to contribute more and in different ways this year. The growth and development of those men will create change in the division of labor. There will be a lot of issues and that is what training camp is about. I think one of the things that I am always conscious about is that I never try to tell a story; I always try to let the story unfold and call it as I see it. That is what I intend to do this year as well.
Is your defensive line still a concern as you head into camp?
TOMLIN: It is somewhat of a concern. I think the thing that added to that concern last year was the number of those men who were going into free agency. Our ability to re-sign some of those men answers some of those questions for us. What I mean was that we had guys like Travis Kirschke and Nick Easonwho were going into free agency. So when you talk about concerns and thin depth and the age of the group and things of that nature, you couldn't talk about those guys being in the mix. Some of the things we did in terms of solidifying that group and signing those two people prior to the draft alleviated some of that worry. But it is worry and its part of football. It's going to be great to see that unfold. And again we had a guy like Ryan McBean who didn't contribute much last year who has been through the cycle. He's going to be a second-year guy in our program and hopefully he'll add some youth and some play, but it's something that he's going to have to earn. He's had a great offseason. He's worked extremely hard. He's healthy now. Maybe he's a young guy who could potentially add to that mix; I think it will all unfold. And of course we brought in some undrafted rookie free agents that will be given an opportunity to step up and show what they are capable of doing. I think one of the things we've learned around here and I've learned in this business is that if a man has a helmet and is invited to camp, he has an opportunity. And I don't want to discount the opportunity that stands before those three young undrafted defensive linemen. We will see how those guys grow and develop.
What is your plan for Rashard Mendenhall?
TOMLIN: Our initial plan is that he is going to be a supplemental runner. We've explored the possibility of him returning kicks and he has worked in that area this offseason. The growth of his role will be determined on his ability to execute from an assignment standpoint. Much like Lawrence Timmons was last year – this is a young rookie. This guy has just turned 21 last month, so age is a factor. To this point he has shown that he is mature and unique for a 21-year-old guy. Hopefully that translates to him growing and developing as a member of this football team quickly. But again I don't have a crystal ball and we will let that play out. He's got a nice humble mentality about him so I won't be shocked if he does some nice things for us.
You plan for Max Starks?
TOMLIN: Right now he is focusing more on right tackle. But Max is a guy that has shown he is capable of playing left tackle as well. So there will be instances and moments that you will see that.
Can you talk about the battle for the safety position?
TOMLIN: Safety, great battle. Of course we have Troy Polamalu at safety. Ryan Clark has probably been one of the stories of the offseason as far as I am concerned, of watching somebody battle back from what he has battled back from. But what he has done to this point is just part of the battle. It is going to be exciting to watch him take the next step, which is carrying pads and playing. He's got his weight back up to where it was a year ago. He is excited. He is a mentally and physically tough guy. It will be awesome to watch him take the next step. Anthony Smith is ready to rock and roll. He had his ups and downs last year, but again, that is in his rear view mirror. Hopefully his rear view mirror is smaller than his windshield. I know mine is. Hopefully his eyes are moving towards 2008 and he is ready to take that life experience and use it for good and get back in the battle again this year. Of course Tyrone Carter is a veteran, position-flexible guy who has competed at that position. Grant Mason logged a few snaps primarily on special teams last year. He is a guy who has been a part of the program for a year now. We will call on him to take another step and compete. Then of course, we drafted another young man from Woodland Hills High School – Ryan Mundy – who will be a battler in the mix as well. We feel like we have some guys who are ready to compete and sort themselves out.
How will you handle Ryan Clark at camp?
TOMLIN: Right now he is a football player so we are going to let him go. Ryan knows his body better than I do. I know that Ryan is a competitor. I know that he has great work ethics. If he has some concerns, I'll have some concerns. But right now there are none.
Can you imagine a tougher schedule?
TOMLIN: I really mean what I say when I tell you I could care less about the schedule and the schedule making. When you pursue the world championship, when you want to be the best, eventually you have to beat them all anyway. That is our goal as we stand here today. We have no bearing or control over the schedule. We tend to focus on the things we can control and specifically those things one at a time. That is the approach that I'll take.