By Dale Grdnic
Photo: David Hague – Inside Pittsburgh Sports
LATROBE, Pa. — It’s easy to call Tony Hills a bust after he was inactive for all 16 regular-season games and the entire postseason, but the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly haven’t given up on their 2008 fourth-round pick.
“No, sir, not by a long shot,” Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein said. “We realize it’s tough for a rookie to come right in and get any playing time, especially on the offensive line at a tackle spot. So, we told him what he needed to work on, and he did a good job with that. Now, we’ll see how it goes on the field, but we expect a lot more from him this season.”
The Steelers are quite thin at tackle with Hills, Jason Capizzi, Ramon Foster and Jeremy Parquet vying for playing time behind starters Willie Colon and Max Starks. Hills has been backing up Starks on the left side.
Veteran Trai Essex also could play tackle in a pinch, but he’s the starting right guard now that Darnell Stapleton is out.
“I’ve done a much better job learning the concepts of our offense, and my technique is getting a lot better, too,” Hills said. “I’ve still got a lot of things to work on, obviously, but I’m much more confident in what I’m doing.
“I worked on pass-protection, hand placement, my footwork, all those things. All the things I worked on during the offseason, I’m trying to translate that to the football field now. It’s going OK, so far, but I’ve still got a long way to go.”
That’s why Hills did not return to Texas during the offseason. He stayed in Pittsburgh and worked out with some teammates who live in the area and took advantage of the club’s practice facility.
“I was only home about a month,” Hills said. “So, I mostly stayed around and worked with the strength coaches, got in the film room a lot, the playbook, and out on the grass to do all the small things that I could to get better this year.
“My expectations last year were to come in and learn. Anytime you go into a new place, you need to find out what the guy ahead of you is doing and what you need to do to get to that level. I know you have to be patient in this league, and I can do that. But I know I have to be ready if they call my number.”
Hills couldn’t have a better mentor than Starks, who has a high football IQ and works just as hard in the film room as he does in the weight room. Hills is a student of the game as well, but even he has learned a few new tricks.
“I can turn to Max anytime I need to know something about techniques or offensive concepts,” Hills said. “In college, I just concentrated on what I did and the guy in front of me. In the NFL, I learned that you don’t always block the guy in front of you, so you need to learn everything about the defense.”
If Hills can just translate that knowledge onto the field, the Steelers will have their tackle of the future in the fold.
Some Getting Better, Some Status Quo
Tight end Heath Miller (sports hernia surgery) and center Justin Hartwig (right big toe) continued to increase their work in practice, but they have not yet rejoined the club for team drills.
Center-offensive guard Darnell Stapleton’s right knee has not improved, so a decision has to be made concerning him. Tomlin, however, is not ready to discuss Stapleton’s health just yet, although the player watched practice on the field for the first time in a couple days.
Hines Ward, James Farrior, Deshea Townsend and Troy Polamalu were given the afternoon off, but all are healthy.
Defensive end Sonny Harris was still working out on the sideline. Also out Wednesday were wideout Martin Nance (leg), who had a solid morning session, and tailback Mewelde Moore (slight hamstring pull), after not being able to finish the day before. Willie Parker (shoulder) returned to practice.
Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes
The entire WVU coaching staff was in attendance for both Wednesday practices. … The Ambridge High School coaching staff and some players were there in the afternoon, as Kelvin Fisher — a Steelers’ college scout — is an Bridger alum. …
DBs Anthony Madison (Bam) and William Gay (Big Play) have their nicknames are emblazoned on the backs on their practice towels. …
The Presidents’ Athletic Conference held its annual media day at Saint Vincent College, so all the coaches from those schools watched the club’s afternoon practice. The PAC includes Thomas More, Washington & Jefferson, Grove City, Westminster, Waynesburg, Bethany, Thiel, Geneva and Saint Vincent. …
– OLB Arnold Harrison and OT Ramon Foster had to be separated during a team drill. …
– LB Tom Korte had a late interception of Dennis Dixon. …
– Punter Daniel Sepulveda passed to DT Scott Paxson for a touchdown on a fake punt. Then Paxson went into a strange dance before spiking the ball, a no-no while playing for Coach Joe Paterno at Penn State.
“I was looking for the ref to give it to him, but there aren’t any,” Paxson said. “So, I spiked it for the fans. (But) I’m T-Rex, so I had to do my T-Rex dance first. I was just acting like the dinosaur that I am, with my short arms.”
The Steelers have just one practice in the afternoon Thursday. There is a morning special teams workout Friday and then a night session beginning at 7 at Latrobe’s Memorial Stadium. Players will sign autographs at 6:45 p.m., with a nominal fee for fans to enter the stadium.