By BOB LABRIOLA
LATROBE – All of the good things that happened during the Steelers second full day of practices at Saint Vincent College was tempered by a singular bit of bad news.
Daniel Sepulveda is out for the season with a torn ACL in his right leg.
Sepulveda is the left-footed punter the Steelers drafted in the fourth round ion 2007, a punter they valued so much that they traded their sixth-round pick in that draft to get up high enough to snag him. To replace Sepulveda on the roster, the Steelers claimed Paul Ernster off waivers and he was scheduled to be on campus Tuesday night.
"It's unfortunate for Daniel on a personal level, but that's part of football," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "It's what this game is about, and we have to be prepared to move forward. It's the plant leg, his right leg. It's the same knee he injured in college. After punting yesterday, he experienced some discomfort, to say the least. He got it looked at today, and this is the end result."
Sepulveda initially tore the ACL in his right leg in a pickup basketball game during Easter weekend in 2006 while at Baylor. He had surgery on April 27, and then during that football season Sepulveda led the nation in punting and set a school record with 66 punts for 3,068 yards (46.5 average). He won the Ray Guy Award that season for the second time as college football's best punter.
"The MRI always said the ACL was good, but it's always had a little bit more glide than it probably should," said Sepulveda. "Nothing that was ever too much of a concern to let me play or anything like that. It's been like that for a while. Gosh, it wasn't too long after I got it initially fixed that it was like that."
The condition didn't prevent Sepulveda from punting 68 times during his rookie season in the NFL, and while he averaged 42.4 yards per kick he also excelled at killing the ball inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Sepulveda set an unofficial team record (data from 1976 to present) with an inside-the-20-to-touchback ratio of 28-to-2. In other words, 93.3 percent of Sepulveda's kicks beyond the opponent's 20-yard line were downed before the goal line. The Steelers ranked dead last in 2006 in this category.
"It was a pretty rough day today. We're going to talk about what we're going to do going forward," said Sepulveda. "Kind of had a little bump in the road. I got an MRI today, based on warming up yesterday. My knee's been shaky for a while now, but the MRI has always said it's good. Today, the MRI wasn't good. I re-tore my ACL."
Did Sepulveda rush himself back onto the field for his senior season at Baylor, and could that have been the root cause for the problem that manifested itself here on Monday?
"Well, I don't like to second-guess the decisions that I make," said Sepulveda. "God gave me a peace about that one and it ended out working out pretty good obviously. Suffer maybe some consequences for the decision I made back then, but I'm going to be responsible for that and I'm going to be professional going forward."
Going forward, the Steelers will give Ernster a chance to solve this problem. Originally a seventh-round pick of the Denver Broncos from Northern Arizona, Ernster, 26, has only one full season in the NFL. In 2006, he punted 80 times for a 41.7-yard average, with 23 kicks down inside the 20-yard line and seven touchbacks.
"You have no control over when it happens," said Tomlin about losing a front-line player to a season-ending injury. "We're paid to be light on our feet and react in this business, and that's what we'll do."
Of particular interest during Tuesday's afternoon practice was the two-minute drill. On both occasions, the offense was able to move the ball down the field and score a touchdown. Ben Roethlisberger and Nate Washington combined on a pretty throw-and-catch on a fourth-and-goal play during the first set. Charlie Batch was the second quarterback to get a chance, and he completed 7-of-7 on a drive that ended with a fade pattern to Limas Sweed for the touchdown.
"I thought that the two-minute competition today was spirited," said Tomlin. "There still are some technique issues, but I liked the spirit of the group."
INJURY UPDATE: With the exception of Sepulveda, there were no changes to the injury report. Bryant McFadden (groin), Anthony Smith (groin) and Kevin Marion (knee) did not practice, and Chris Kemoeatu, Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton remain on the physically unable to perform list.