By Dale Grdnic
Photo: David Hague – Inside Pittsburgh Sports
Latrobe, Pa. — While some might say that Trai Essex’s versatility has worked against him during his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the fifth-year pro’s “position flexibility” certainly is an asset to Coach Mike Tomlin.
Essex moved up and down the line last year, spending at least a little time at every spot except center, but he wasn’t the guy when a replacement was needed for Kendall Simmons. Essex was a backup tackle and guard, and Darnell Stapleton started at right guard.
Stapleton will be out indefinitely after arthroscopic surgery Friday to “clean out” his right knee, so Essex should secure the right offensive guard spot now. Tomlin noted Stapleton’s surgery after Thursday afternoon’s practice.
“The same types of things that make him a viable part of our unit when he’s working outside hold true with him as a multiple-position backup,” Tomlin said. “Trai is a very intelligent football player (and Northwestern grad).
“Nothing happens too fast for him in terms of obscure looks and games (by opposing defenses). He’s a very good communicator, and he’s doing some very good things in there. So, we’ll just continue to move forward with him.”
There’s no telling how long Stapleton will be out, because Tomlin won’t discuss it. He hasn’t practiced since Sunday and didn’t even watch practice until Wednesday afternoon.
Stapleton had an MRI Monday and additional tests the past two days. So, for now, Stapleton is out, Essex is the starting right guard and third-round pick Kraig Urbik from Wisconsin is waiting in the wings.
“I’m well aware of the opportunity that’s ahead of me,” Essex said. “Even if Darnell was healthy, I would like to think that we would still be competing. (But) it’s a good opportunity for me, and I’m well aware that it’s right in front of me. So, I’m going full force ahead to try to grab it.
“It helps being able to get used to one position. All the switching back and forth is good for the team, but personally, to be able to play at one position the entire practice and to work on that and not guess at what position I’m going to play next helps a lot. I got tired of it last year.”
Essex was a third-round pick by the Steelers in 2005 and played in six games with three starts at left tackle for the injured Marvel Smith as a rookie.
Since then, Essex has rarely seen the field other than special teams and goal-line situations when the club goes to the beefy backfield.
Essex contemplated signing with another team in the offseason, but ended up signing a two-year deal to stay with the Steelers.
Minor Bumps, Bruises
Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley had some swelling in his right knee, while fullback-tight end Sean McHugh had the same thing in his left knee. Neither is expected to be out long, according to Tomlin, despite missing the Thursday afternoon practice.
“We haven’t slowed (Woodley) down at all, and this thing really is the first time it’s been an issue at all,” Tomlin said. “So, every day that James Harrison has been out there, so has LaMarr Woodley. Until now, but we don’t anticipate either he or Sean McHugh being out for very long.”
Sonny Harris (strained groin) is getting closer, Tomlin noted, while Mewelde Moore and Martin Nance will still be out a couple days more with their hamstring strains. Troy Polamalu and Deshea Townsend should be ready to go soon.
Wideout Hines Ward, tight end Heath Miller and center Justin Hartwig all returned to practice on a limited basis, running around in the individual drills, but not really taking part in the 11-on-11.
“We just got tired of Hines coaching a bit, so we put a helmet on him,” Tomlin said. “And we decided to let him go out there and make a few plays for us. (But) he’s in midseason form (as far as coaching the referees goes).
“Justin has continued to work and get better, as is Heath, so we’ll continue to monitor that. Until then, at center, we’ll just keep getting more quality looks at (Doug) Legursky and A.Q. Shipley.”
Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes
Kentucky coach and Western Pennsylvania native John Calipari watched an hour of practice Thursday.
Then, he and his entourage returned home on a private jet and likely landed before practice ended
. Calipari was a big Steelers fan growing up in Moon Township, Pa. He was introduced to Tomlin and former Kentucky great Dermontti Dawson, the Steelers’ Pro-Bowl center from the 1990s.
Former Penn Stater and Steelers center Jeff Hartings and his kids were in attendance. Hartings played at about 295 pounds and easily is 100 pounds lighter now. Maybe more.
One of the many priests at Saint Vincent College was asked if it was hot for him with the bright sun and with him wearing a long, dark robe.
“Sure, it’s hot,” the priest said, “but hell’s a lot hotter. And I’d rather be here watching Steelers football.”