By BOB LABRIOLA
LATROBE – Many of those who have come before him have used this same patch of grass for their professional coming-out parties.
Levon Kirkland, when he stoned veteran running back Leroy Thompson in goal-line. Chad Brown, when he embarrassed LaMonte Coleman in backs-on-backers. Kordell Stewart, when he left Chad Brown grasping at air in goal-line. Chris Hope, when he was involved in a seismic collision with Jerome Bettis.
And so it was last night at Latrobe Stadium for Lawrence Timmons.
In front of a crowd estimated at 12,000, the Steelers renewed a training camp ritual by staging an autograph session/night practice, the highlight of which was another rousing session of backs-on-backers.
"I thought it was very competitive," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "That drill is moving in the direction that we want it to move. Of course, that drill is geared toward the linebackers, but I thought the backs did a nice job of stepping up and competing."
The Steelers night practice brought out the crew from ESPN's "NFL Live," and Tomlin's point about the drill being weighted toward the linebackers long has been the opinion of Merril Hoge, once a Steelers running back who used to participate in it and last night a co-host of the television show.
Geared toward the linebackers or not, the 2008 edition will take its place in training camp lore for the performance turned in by Timmons, the Steelers' No. 1 pick in 2007.
The speed and explosion Timmons exhibited during his repetitions distinguished him from most of the other participants, and the collisions he initiated had the sound of a car driving into a wall. Only this time, the wall didn't win.
Timmons ran over 6-foot-8, 264-pound tight end Cody Boyd, then did the same to running back Justin Vincent. He used more finesse than power to defeat running back Gary Russell, but then he went back to power against 250-pound tight end Dezmond Sherrod. The only offensive player to hold his ground against Timmons was Willie Parker.
"Lawrence is a guy on the come," said Tomlin. "We challenged him to be at his best. He's a second-year guy along with everybody else in his class, and I really think he has embraced that challenge. He's a talented guy, as you guys can see, but he's not a finished product by any means. But he does have an attitude to come out here and get better every time we work."
With the additions of Timmons and LaMarr Woodley last year, and with rookie Bruce Davis catching up on what he missed at OTAs, the Steelers' corps of linebackers has a chance to be better and younger.
"I think we're building some depth," said Tomlin. "We have some young guys who have to step up and understand the speed of the professional game and what we require them to do. We have the makings of a good, solid unit there, with some depth. But the young guys have to come on."
But if Tomlin was happy with some of the energy and competitiveness of Friday's night practice, the execution left him unsatisfied.
"It wasn't our sharpest performance tonight," said Tomlin. "I just stressed the point to the team that we have to be ready to go under all circumstances. We have to be at our best. We have very few 1 p.m. kickoffs with this football team this year. We'll get another opportunity at a night practice here in a few days, and it has to be better for us from an execution standpoint, from an attention to detail standpoint. I liked the energy, I love the way the guys compete but not our best performance from a technique standpoint here at camp. Of course, every time we come out we want to be better in that area. I didn't think we did that tonight, and sometimes that happens. We have to evaluate it, make corrections and move forward. I think we'll do that."
Tomlin then provided the daily injury report:
"On the injury front, Anthony Smith wasn't able to finish earlier today, so he's still out with the groin. Sean Mahan was out with some back discomfort. Mike Humpal tried to go, but wasn't able to finish with his hamstring. I think Ben Roethlisberger has a slight right groin. We'll see where he is. Santonio Holmes had a death in the family, and he had to attend to that. We expect him back on Sunday."