By BOB LABRIOLA
Same attitude. Same work ethic. Same view of himself.
The only thing different about Ziggy Hood is he has signed his name to an NFL contract, and to him all that means right now is he'll be able to report to training camp on Friday with the rest of his teammates.
The Steelers have gone five straight summers now with getting their first-round picks signed in time for the start of training camp, and even among that group Hood is a standout. By signing on Monday, July 27, Hood got his deal done four days before the July 31 reporting date. In today's NFL, getting a No. 1 draft pick signed four full days before players are to report to training camp is the stuff of a ticker-tape parade.
"It's like a certain kind of pressure, a weight has been lifted off my shoulders," said Hood. "Now I can fully concentrate on football and try to get better."
As of the time the Steelers came to an agreement with Hood on July 25, only three other first-round picks had signed. Detroit's Matthew Stafford signed before the draft began; the Jets got quarterback Mark Sanchez signed before most teams were finished with their minicamps; and the Cleveland Browns got a deal done with Alex Mack just as they were about to become the first NFL team to report to camp.
"After I get the first practice in, I might feel like an NFL player, but right now it just feels good to know everything else is taken care of, in terms of getting the contract done," said Hood. "No stress through the whole ordeal, and now I can just go out and play."
As a guy who worked at a fast-food restaurant throughout high school to help out with the bills at home, Hood isn't the type to go on any mad shopping sprees with the signing bonus that was a part of his five-year contract. In fact, life for him as a millionaire hasn't been any different than life was for him as a college student.
"I've just been working out, sometimes twice a day to try to get used to the camp schedule," said Hood about how he's been spending his time of late. "I'm just trying my best to get a feel for what's to come, even though I really don't know what to expect."
With the exception of a week spent at home, Hood has been in Pittsburgh working out at the team's facility since the end of OTAs in mid-June. Veteran Charlie Batch has given Hood the benefit of his experience as far as what to expect in an NFL training camp, but there is no better knowledge than what is gathered first-hand.
And so, the most valuable experiences for Hood so far have been the ones during the Steelers offseason program.
"I feel more confident when I go out there and play, not thinking as much as I was during minicamp and the first OTAs," said Hood. "The playbook was thrown at me, everything was spinning around me and I was trying to concentrate on what I have to do, all the while trying to know what the offense is trying to do. Now I feel a whole lot better when I step out on the field."
Hood was able to participate in all of the Steelers' post-draft OTAs, and as the team's offseason program ended in the middle of June, Coach Mike Tomlin was asked for an early assessment.
"The one thing that stood out about him is he's willing and capable of running to the football," said Tomlin. "He covers a lot of ground for a big man. Other than that there is not much of an evaluation that you can make on a defensive lineman at this point. But his ability to run to the ball and his willingness to run to the ball and chase the football are unique for this position."
During his final two college seasons at Missouri, Hood, 6-3, 300, had 10 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback pressures in those 28 starts, while also flashing the big-play ability that NFL scouts and coaches love. He made six tackles on goal-line plays in 2008, and in the Cotton Bowl after the 2007 season he turned in what Coach Gary Pinkel called his best game at Missouri with six tackles and 1.5 sacks in a win over Arkansas.
The Steelers were in a situation where it was becoming critical to add defensive linemen through the draft, because even though the players currently on their roster there are a strength of a defense that was the NFL's best in 2008, only one of their top six players is under 30. Nick Eason was 29 on May 26.
"I may not be one of the strongest, fastest or quickest defensive tackles out there," said Hood, "but I can make a lot of plays from the backside if I hustle to the ball. I'd just like to say, I am good to go and ready to work."