By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Steve McLendon is well aware that the bar has been set extremely high by previous teams for this year’s Pittsburgh Steelers group, and that mark is confirmed each time he has to walk past the franchise’s six Super Bowl trophies on his way to the defensive line meeting room.
McLendon appears to be a diamond in the rough for the Steelers, who signed him as an undrafted player from tiny Troy University in Alabama. And now, as McLendon enters his fourth NFL season, the Steelers expect him to make the step from heralded backup to starting nose tackle on their defensive line.
“Coach Tomlin always says that conditioning precedes everything else,” McLendon said Tuesday after the Steelers’ fourth OTA practice. “So, that’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to come in at the best condition that we’ve ever been and be ready to play. The other thing is that I’ve got to look at things different, too, because I’m not just talking about being good anymore.
“I have to be great, and it’s all about being great now. I always prepared like a starter from Day 1, even when I got cut. … I don’t want to come out here and just be good. I want to be great, so I changed my mind-set and my work ethic. I’ve always worked hard, but I know somebody else is working hard, too. So, I have to work even harder than that. And that’s how I’ve approached it.”
McLendon’s stats were modest this past season as Casey Hampton’s backup, the first season without Chris Hoke in that primary role, but he flashed enough for the Steelers to leave Hampton without a contract and McLendon as the club’s main man in the middle. He certainly made an impression on Steelers veteran right end Brett Keisel as well.
“I see a lot,” Keisel said. “I see the same things they saw. Steve has a lot of potential. He’s a good, hardworking kid who comes in ready to work every day. He was given opportunities to play last year and took advantage of them. That’s what it’s all about. I say it all the time, ‘The only thing you’re going to be given in this league is an opportunity, and what you do with it is up to you.’
“(So), we’ve seen flashes of him making big plays. It’ll be great to see it on a regular basis. It’s an adjustment. When you’ve played a full game, you really know it after that game. Your body hurts and it’s just a grind. You have to get used to it, and he’ll do a good job. He’s a great kid. He works hard, and he’ll take advantage of it. I have a lot of confidence in him.”
McLendon said he also has received a lot of support from Hampton and Hoke, and he has kept in contact with them throughout the offseason.
“Oh, yes, I have to talk to big Casey,” McLendon said. “We mostly talked about life, but not necessarily about football. All he tells me about football is to keep staying in shape and continue to do the things that I’ve been doing all along. Casey’s more of a guy like … everybody else talks about football with me, so he wants to work on the mental aspect with me.
“He wants to make sure that I’m mentally ready to play this game. That’s the type of guy that Casey is. You know, this game is more mental than physical, because almost everybody can handle the physical aspect. And I know I can handle the physical aspect, because I lift weights and work out as hard as anybody. But to be mentally tough, that’s the difference.
“That’s the difference between just being good and being a great player,” McLendon added. “And Casey knows that. … He was a great guy to learn from. He’s one of the greatest guys that I’ve met. Just look at Casey’s resume alone. Pro Bowls. Super Bowls. All-Pro. That’s not a good guy. That’s a great guy, and those are the things that I’m trying to achieve myself.”
McLendon noted that he was prepared a little more for Hampton to not be with the Steelers this season, but the retirement of Hoke was more unexpected.
“Well, Hokie got hurt and had to retire,” McLendon said. “(But) to have these types of individuals to learn from to begin my NFL career, I feel lucky to be part of this group. What a spectacular group of guys. … I learned a lot from them, so I want to be able to give some of that back to my teammates. (And) I’ll always talk to Casey and Hokie. Me and Hokie talked a lot during this past season. We talked every week before and after each game.
“He still recorded the games and when I got back to the locker room he would tell me what I did wrong in the game. And Casey, he’ll still stay on me no matter what he does next season, whether he’s playing here or somewhere else or is retired. He’ll still stay on me the way he always did. They both did, and Coach Mitch did all the time. God forbid that somebody dies, but that would be the only way they wouldn’t be involved with me this season.”
Hampton isn’t likely to return to the Steelers, but he could sign elsewhere in the league or just retire from the NFL after 12 seasons.
“He still can do it, and he most definitely wants to,” McLendon said when asked if he expected Hampton to play this season. “Nobody walks away from this game, but everybody knows that it has to come to and end one day. Playing in the NFL is like a marriage. Me and her are married right now, but one day we’ll have to get divorced. Casey always told me to just continue to be yourself.
“The things that you did to get here, just continue to do those things and remember to be humble. Stay strong and stay firm in what you believe in, and most importantly just go out and play football. It’s still a game, and you know how to play it. You’ve been playing it all your life. That part has not changed. It’s still just a game, and we all need to remember that.”
Notes: Steelers safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark did not attend Tuesday’s OTA practice, and Polamalu is not expected to return until mini-camp June 11-13. … There are two more OTAs this week, Wednesday and Thursday, and four days next week (June 3-6) before mini-camp closes the spring workouts.