Jason Worilds was going through his normal Saturday routine, a workout at an Atlanta gym, when he noticed his phone light up with a text message from a friend. He took a quick look, but even after reading it didn't know what his friend meant. When his workout wrapped up, Worilds went back to the phone and this time instead of just one message, his phone had blown up with texts and voice mails, all telling him the same thing.
The Steelers had just released James Harrison.
Suddenly, Jason Worilds became the presumptive starter for the Steelers at right outside linebacker, a reality that didn't even hit him while he was retrieving those messages.
"I don't know if that was even my initial thought when I picked up the phone and read those texts, that it hit me that way," said Worilds. "But it does make sense that that's how it would play out.
"It's definitely exciting for me personally, but it's tough, too. A lot of people don't understand about the friendships, there are people you get close with in training camp and during the season and they could be gone the next year. While it's a great opportunity for me, James is a friend I saw day in and day out. It's bittersweet in that regard."
There isn't much time for sentiment or reminiscing, though. Worilds must utilize every moment of this offseason to prepare, and even something as simple as that has eluded him in each of the previous three. As a rookie in 2010 he was just getting his feet wet. In 2011, there was the lockout. Last year it was a wrist injury preventing him from participating.
"This will be his first full offseason to participate, so this will be a big year for him," said linebackers coach Keith Butler. "It will be real big for him. Now he knows what we're trying to do defensively, so this will help him as far as advancing and getting better."
Worilds, who started two games at left outside linebacker last year when LaMarr Woodley was injured, has seen his playing time in the defense gradually increase, but always for medical reasons. This time it's different.
"My main focus has always been to get better every time I step on the field," said Worilds. "I'm more comfortable in my assignments, so I'm not just trying not to make a mistake, but to go and make a play. I have been fortunate enough to transition easily from defensive end in college to an outside linebacker. You have to know your position, where to be and how it affects the man next to you. You have to know how important it is for you to do your job and the way you do your job. I want to do the right things, at the right time and the right way."
Butler said he would be comfortable with Worilds at right outside linebacker, especially with the experience he now has under his belt.
"I might not have been comfortable a couple of years ago," said Butler. "but I tell them all this: the more they do and the more they do right, the more confidence I get in them. I'm not going to play them unless I have confidence in them, and their teammates do, too. He reacts and lines up correctly and for the most part does what we ask him to do. He gives us a sense that he has heard what I have told him.
"He can handle the challenge. He wouldn't have made it this far if he couldn't. He has had two Pro Bowlers in front of him. Now he doesn't, and he has the opportunity to show that he belongs. It's a great opportunity for him, one that he has been wanting. He has verbalized that to me several times. He felt like he should be playing more, and I don't want them if they don't all feel like they should be playing. If I was them I would feel like I should be playing if I'm at this level.
"They're all anxious to play and a lot of times they aren't ready. Jason is ready. He is ready to play. He has waited his time, done what he has had to do in terms of learning the defense. He feels like he is ready to play, and I feel that way, too."
Butler has seen the progress and believes Worilds' speed is definitely his best asset. It is that speed and his explosion that will get Worilds to the quarterback.
"It's going to be a little harder to (block) him when he's coming off the edge," said Butler. "Hopefully he can get some guys off balance then take them back to the quarterback if they try to block him."
Worilds knows the expectations are high, especially at a position that has been manned by Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, and James Harrison.
"I knew there were some great ones to play the outside linebacker position, but I wasn't aware all those guys were on the right side," said Worilds. "It's a great tradition.
"I'm at one of the most prestigious positions and places in the NFL, if not the most prestigious, playing linebacker for the Steelers. This is where you want to be if you're a linebacker. It's great to play linebacker for this team. It's the place to play. Growing up as a linebacker, this is where you want to be.
While he respects those who came before him on the right side, Worilds knows better than to try to copy them. He's a different player with his own style, and he's comfortable with that.
"I'm not James Harrison," said Worilds. "He was a great player. But people are going to see Jason Worilds out there. They are going to see effort and fire."
This story was originally published in Steelers Digest. To subscribe, call 1-800-334-4005 or learn more at Steelers Digest online.