Boyd heeds new coach's advice

Tajh Boyd, Devin Gardner and Tyler Murphy combined for more than 21,000 yards passing and 150 touchdowns during their collegiate careers.

And yet all three understand if the Pittsburgh Steelers require any of them to so much as cock back their arm once during a regular season game, things are likely pretty bleak.

The Steelers pay Ben Roethlisberger millions (and millions) to take the snaps, putting Boyd, Gardner and Murphy in the unusual position of having to find new ways to make themselves useful if they want any shot at being more than training camp curiosities.

For Gardner and Murphy, it means experimenting at wide receiver. For Boyd, it means trying to generate enough momentum to unseat third-stringer Landry Jones behind Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski, after spending 2014 on the fringes of the sport. Halfway through offseason practices, the road to a spot on the 53-man roster remains uncertain. But a slim chance beats having no chance at all.

"I feel like football all over the field is football," Gardner said. "No matter where I play I feel I'm going to do well as long as I learn how to play it."

That mindset helped the 6-foot-4 Gardner survive five turbulent years at Michigan, including a brief moonlighting period at wide receiver in 2012 and the uneven coaching tenures of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. The Steelers signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent, curious to get a look at his versatility. While they initially wanted Gardner to focus on receiver, he's spent the last week in the meeting room with the quarterbacks too.

"I'm just going to do whatever they tell me to do," Gardner said with a laugh.

At the moment, that appears to be a little bit of everything. One minute he's leaning on All-Pro Antonio Brown for advice on how to get open, the next he's watching how Roethlisberger conducts everything from the huddle to the snap count.

"People talk about listening as a skill," Gardner said. "For me that skill is going to help me do different things."

At least Gardner has a little bit of history to fall back on. Not Murphy, a dual threat runner and passer at Florida who transferred to Boston College in 2014, where he helped the Eagles through an eventful season that included an upset of USC and a narrow overtime loss to Penn State in the Pinstripe Bowl. He can be electric in the open field — rushing for 1,184 yards and 11 scores last fall — if somewhat of a project. Like Gardner, he's split time with the wide receivers and the quarterbacks during organized team activities. Like Gardner, he's hoping to find a reason for the Steelers to keep him around in whatever capacity they see fit.

"I'm trying to add value," Murphy said. "You need to separate yourself. So that's why I'm playing a little receiver and holding, just to make it difficult for them to cut me."

The mental adjustment to receiver is proving to be the easy part. Most route trees are the same no matter where you go. Developing technique against cornerbacks is another matter. Both players gave credit to Brown for taking them in during a difficult transition period.

"He's helped me confidence-wise, especially off the field," Gardner said. "He gives you that reassurance about yourself and your skills."

Gardner and Murphy will need to rely on those skills if they want to have any sort of legitimate shot at making the team. The Steelers had the NFL's second-ranked offense in 2014 and drafted Auburn speedster Sammie Coates to compliment an attack that includes Brown, running back Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

By design, Gardner insists he doesn't try to gauge his prospects, knowing the decisions are out of his control. Boyd is more acutely aware of his circumstances. A star at Clemson — where he was ACC Player of the Year in 2012 — Boyd failed to make it out of training camp with the New York Jets in 2014 and nearly quit last fall while playing for Boston in something called the Fall Experimental Football League.

The 24-year-old found a lifeline over the winter in Pittsburgh, where former college teammate Bryant had just put the finishing touches on a breakout rookie season. While Roethlisberger and backup Bruce Gradkowski are firmly entrenched, Boyd could put pressure on Jones for the third spot. To do so, he'll have to find a way to make plays throwing to the likes of Gardner and Murphy, receiving neophytes trying to find their way.

That's OK by Boyd. He knows there is little to lose. Just in case he was in danger of forgetting, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin offered a bit of advice that Gardner and Murphy are also taking to heart.

"Tomlin was like, 'Just go out there, play ball, do what you do, take it to the next play and we'll review everything after,'" Boyd said. "Just go play."

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