Wexell notes: Getting oriented

These are the thoughts of a sportswriter who's fresh from rookie orientation camp and wonders how long No. 1 pick Troy Polamalu will spend in rookie purgatory learning the dreaded system:

* The kid's a player, you can tell right away by the way he glides around the field, smells the play, slips a block and squares up for the imaginary tackle during these non-contact drills. But he's small. You can't help but wonder how long Polamalu will last since his talent and courage won't allow him to miss much at the line of scrimmage.

* Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis once said that strong safeties, buck linebackers and nose tackles have short shelf lives in the Steelers' system. Carnell Lake stepped into the strong safety spot as a rookie in 1989 and lasted 10 years with the Steelers (two-and-a-half seasons at cornerback) before his body began to give out. Lee Flowers replaced 1997 fill-in Myron Bell at strong safety in 1998 and started for five seasons. At 30, Flowers is currently on the free-agent market.

* Veteran scout Bill Nunn had an interesting reply when told Polamalu looked kind of small for such a large investment. "That's because he wears those long shorts that hang below his knees," Nunn said. "If he was worried about making the roster, he'd be wearing his shorts above his knees to look taller." It sounded strange until roster hopeful Erik Totten jogged past in shorter shorts. The 5-foot-9 safety did in fact look taller than the 5-10 Polamalu.

* Chris Hope said that former Florida State teammate Alonzo Jackson "was kind of on the shy side when I was there." Jackson was a quiet junior at FSU before growing bold as a senior. He held court with reporters in Pittsburgh several times during rookie camp, much the way Flowers did, group guffaws included. You hope Jackson's just feeling his last rookie oats. That stuff won't play the rest of the year. Go back to that shy thing for awhile, Alonzo.

* All a sportswriter can tell you about Jackson after four non-contact practices is that he has an amazing wingspan that helped him intercept a Brian St. Pierre swing pass to a running back. Jackson's feet, to a novice, look fine, but he'll have to get stronger, long arms and all.

* After his eruption in the FSU locker room following a loss to Notre Dame, Jackson went into the post-game press conference and called Notre Dame center Jeff Faine "soft and overrated." That and a comment made by reporter Tunch Ilkin on Fox 970 Radio don't paint a pretty picture about the Browns' No. 1 pick. Ilkin served as analyst on the Pitt-Notre Dame game. He commented during the draft that Faine was very impressive in warm-ups and disappointing in the game. Sounds like the guy drafted with the idea of blocking Casey Hampton was a bit of a reach.

* If Faine is indeed "soft and overrated," the Browns had a stinko draft. Pee-U! Second-round LB Chaun Thompson is interesting, but taken way too early. They also drafted a long-snapper in the fifth round. After drafting RB Lee Suggs in the fourth round, the Browns explained that Suggs would miss the season with a torn rotator cuff. The good news in Cleveland is Suggs "might get back on the field in 2003."

* Steelers rookie Ike Taylor tries to squeeze your hand off upon introduction, looks you right in the eye and yes-sir-no-sirs you to death. On the field, he's thick, strong, tall, fast and unsure of himself. Some might say he's another Mathias Nkwenti, the body-beautiful fourth-rounder with the 10-cent head. But Taylor's different. He wants it bad. Nkwenti still thinks he deserves it. A raw cornerback, Taylor also differs in that he grew up with the game, and, man, being called the Steelers' "worst draft pick ever" by the Post-Gazette has provided extra incentive. A very, very intriguing athlete.

* Take with a grain a salt my observation that QB Tim Levcik looks like the draft pick and fifth-rounder St. Pierre looks like the camp arm. Levcik whistles the ball around the yard while St. Pierre has yet to stand out. Yes, Levcik's tripped over his feet a couple of times, but he's not staunchly immobile. Again, heads are spinning at this rookie camp and premature judgments should be taken at face value.

* Dante Brown is a good-looking running back but no other rookie free agents stood out to this writer. The receiver who just may be the leader for the roster opening is Khori Ivy, the former West Virginia University player who was signed to the Steelers' practice squad last September. His experience helps him relax and the 6-3 Ivy has made some pretty catches.

* The last word this week belongs to Jackson, who called a couple of prying reporters back to his locker to remind us that "We were supposed to slaughter Notre Dame. They had no chance of beating us if we would've did what we supposed to do. But we went out there and weren't focused and things happened."

* Guess you're an orienting rookie only once.

Jim Wexell
Steel City Sports.com

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