LATROBE, Pa. – With all the injuries, position battles and chaos of shuffling players around the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line, the team considers itself fortunate to have a stable Pro Bowl anchor in the middle.
Even if this pillar of stability is only three weeks removed from his 22nd birthday.
Taken with the 18th pick of last year's draft, Maurkice Pouncey so impressed the Steelers early during training camp of his rookie year that he won the starting job at center. Almost immediately, Pouncey developed into one of the best of the league at his position.
Forget the sophomore slump, his teammates say. Still the second-youngest of the 90 players in Pittsburgh's camp, Pouncey has gone from 20-year-old draftee to respected, reliable team leader in a matter of 16 months.
"He's the spark on our offensive line," guard/center Doug Legursky said. "He's going to lead us."
He's being depended on to do just that for a unit that will have different starters at three of the four other positions from last season's Super Bowl team.
"There's a lot of pressure on me this year," Pouncey said, "so I'm ready for it. We've got some older guys, but I definitely want to be part of the anchor of the offensive line and contribute my part."
A three-year starter before leaving school after his junior year at Florida — his twin brother, Mike, was a first-round pick of the Dolphins this year — Pouncey appears to be the next in the line of great Pittsburgh centers.
The Steelers had just four starting centers between 1964-2006. Three were selected to multiple Pro Bowls, Mike Webster is already in the Hall of Fame and Dermonti Dawson has been a finalist for induction.
Yes, it's only been one full season. But Pouncey is giving the Steelers reason to believe he can join that lineage after being the best lineman, at age 21, on a team that won the AFC championship. The only down note from last season, is that Pouncey did not play in the Super Bowl due to a high ankle sprain.
"He's incredible," said Rashard Mendenhall, who was fifth in the AFC in rushing yards and tied for second in rushing touchdowns running behind Pouncey last season. "Maurkice is just a very smart player, very athletic, and he's just a dog. He's not going to back down from anything. You see that everyday when you watch film, you see it everyday in practice."
Pouncey's tenacity has helped endear him to his teammates, more than one of whom affectionately uses the word "nasty" to describe his demeanor on the field. Already this preseason, the young center rushed to the defense of a teammate who was on the wrong end of some jawing by a Washington Redskin on Friday.
Such an attitude is in stark contrast to the easy-going, quiet persona Pouncey has off the field. He might be developing into a fiery leader for a traditional powerhouse. But, in reality, he's still a smiling, happy-go-lucky college-aged kid.
"You catch yourself sometimes looking at him going, 'Wow, he's 21,'" Pittsburgh offensive line coach Sean Kugler said. "When you're talking football with Maurkice sometimes, it's like he's a 30-year-old. And then when you start talking things off the football field, it's then you realize, 'Yeah, he's 21.'
"A great kid, mature football-wise beyond what he is right now."
Considering Pittsburgh cut the two most senior members of its offensive line from last season, they're going to need some of that Pouncey maturity.
Scott assumed Starks' spot and is the presumptive left tackle this season. Willie Colon, who started from 2007-09 but missed all of last season due to an Achilles injury, returns to his starting right tackle job.
Due to injury and competition, the guard spots have been even more in flux. Chris Kemoeatu, a four-year starter at left guard, was just activated from the physically unable to perform list on Sunday and still has not performed through a full practice.
No fewer than four players have seen time with the first team at right guard. Ramon Foster ended last season as the starter at the position, but he was limited early in camp due to a concussion. Legursky started four games there last season, and also was a capable fill-in at center when Pouncey was out. Chris Scott started at right guard Friday in Washington, but his performance was such that fourth-year pro Tony Hills has been working with the first team at the position these past two days.
"We know there's an open job out there and we're just competing for it," Foster said. "When you have competition, guys seem to get better. So, maybe it won't be a musical chair thing next year."