LATROBE, PA. – The Pittsburgh Steelers will open their preseason today with a 7:30 p.m. game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. For the veterans on the roster, this will be about knocking off the rust and beginning the process of getting themselves ready for the rigors of an NFL regular season, which opens for the Steelers on Sept. 7 against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.
But for another group of players on the 90-man training camp roster, this preseason opener is a first opportunity to show they belong in the NFL.
Two of the players in the latter group are rookie free agents Howard Jones and Josh Mauro, profiled below:
By Michael Kelley
For Jones, it's the road less traveled
The road to a roster spot in the NFL for Steelers' rookie outside linebacker Howard Jones is unconventional to say the least, with the odds stacked against him at seemingly every turn.
How about the fact that he was originally recruited to play wide receiver? Four years later – and 50-pounds heavier – Jones graduated from Shepherd University with 35 sacks, the all-time school record.
"I guess I dropped a few passes so they tried me out at outside linebacker," said Jones with a laugh. "Then I had to play defensive end, and I hated my hand in the dirt … hated it, but I got a few sacks that first game and went from there."
Or how about the fact he's attempting to transition to the NFL from a Division II school?
The Woodbridge, Virginia, native acknowledged the overall faster game speed and the more complex playbook as two major differences from the collegiate level. But he says he's been studying during down times and "catching on pretty fast."
And there is, of course, his status as an undrafted free agent. Jones was projected as a late-round draft choice and received multiple in-draft calls from teams expressing interest, but he didn't hear his name announced to the crowd at Radio City Music Hall.
"Every day is a game day to me because I obviously still have something to prove," said Jones. "I just go out there to compete."
Jones burst onto the scene at the NFL Scouting Combine and showed flashes of the athleticism that he's currently displaying at training camp. He ran the third-best 40-yard dash time (4.60) among defensive linemen and recorded the best vertical jump (40.5 inches) and second-best broad jump (124 inches). But while Jones was able to compete against defensive linemen at the Combine, he is trying to make the Steelers roster as an outside linebacker.
The next step along his unconventional road comes tonight at MetLife Stadium.
The bull in the china shop
His college nickname was the 'bull in the china shop.' Now, rookie defensive end Josh Mauro is hoping he can live up to that label in his quest to carve out a career for himself as a professional football player.
"It was a reference to the way I played with no regard," said Mauro. "I just try to be relentless and get to the ball and help my team win."
His current status as a 6-foot-6, 282-pound defensive end is a far cry from his days as a quarterback for L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, Texas – coincidentally the same high school as former Steelers' starter Tommy Maddox.
"I grew taller before I grew out." Mauro recalled. "I was this tall, lanky kid in high school. My older brother played quarterback and I was trying to follow in his footsteps."
Mauro, a Stanford graduate, signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent shortly after the draft ended in May. Mauro recorded 51 tackles (12.5 for loss), two forced fumbles and an interception last season to help lead the Cardinal to its second straight Rose Bowl appearance.
But the bowl days are over. Mauro is now adjusting to life in the NFL and working to earn a roster spot, and one of the tools he is using to earn a spot is the tenacious playing style that earned him the nickname.
"The mental aspect is probably the most important, understanding everything in the defense, the little details," said Mauro. "I just try to show up every day and be more consistent than the day before."
Mauro, born in St. Albans, England, before growing up in Texas, has just one focus currently: football.
"It's kind of a great thing not having to worry about school or anything else," said Mauro, "just having a one-track mind right now."
The track has taken him to Northern New Jersey.