LATROBE -- Less than 18 hours after John Mitchell threw up his hands in exasperation over a question about Stephon Tuitt's state of readiness, Tuitt, the Steelers' startingly athletic second-round draft pick, was in the starting lineup at left defensive end.
Tuitt was merely an injury replacement, but it's clear his path to the first team won't be stymied the way Cameron Heyward's was before him; even if Mitchell, the team's line coach since 1994, strenuously objects the way he did Friday night at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.
"He's lost," Mitchell said. "He's working through it. He's working hard. So that's it right now."
This reporter went one more step and asked Mitchell how far Tuitt is from the starting lineup.
"We haven't got out of training camp yet, Jim," Mitchell said as he threw his hands up in the air. "He's a long ways away. We're not even thinking about that. Not even close."
Yet, there was Tuitt manning the strong-side end, Aaron Smith's old spot, when Steve McLendon was held out of Saturday's practice, presumably to give Mike Tomlin a look at Tuitt, as first-team LDE Cam Thomas slid over to the nose.
"Goal line was an eye-opener," Tuitt said of his work Saturday. "But I think I did fairly well. I did what I had to do. I'll get better at it as I do it more."
"The eye-opener was that it's not college ball no more now," Tuitt said with a deep laugh.
Tuitt is being talked up by not only the personnel men who want so badly to see the long, lean, quick-footed Notre Dame product bookend the line with Heyward, but he's being talked up privately by the head coach.
Tomlin, though, when asked about Tuitt following Thursday's practice would only say, "He's doing well."
When pressed, Tomlin provided a bit more than his typical share of commentary for a rookie.
"More than anything it's his willingness to work," Tomlin said. "He comes in in great shape, highly conditioned. He's chasing the ball and he's developing the skill associated with the position. He's got a ways to go there. They all do. But I like his attitude and approach to it."
Tuitt's "willingness to work" has been cited by all, up and down the line.
Heyward, who needed two-plus years to crack the starting lineup, was asked about a future pairing with Tuitt, and whether he was as excited about it as the rest of the organization.
"Oh, yeah," said Heyward. "But it's hard to think about right now because he's so raw. He's got the ability. He's got the drive. The thing I really love about Tuitt is he wants to learn. To be at such an accomplished school in Notre Dame, he really wants to succeed at this next level. I have no doubt in my mind he's going to be a great player for us."
Listed among the raves about Tuitt from sources with the team are his "heavy hands," his athleticism, his work ethic, his balance, his strength, tenacity.
"But he still has that sprinter's stance," said one source. "He has to work on developing a stance that's more suited to a 3-4, because he's still thinking 4-3. Until that gets worked out, he'll give us something on third down."
Tuitt stands 6 feet 5 with long 34 3/4-inch arms and weighs a sculpted 308. And he just turned 21 years old.
He was asked how much bigger he can get once he matures into a man.
"A whole lot," he said with a big laugh.
Tuitt, of course, started 3 games as an 18-year-old freshman at Notre Dame before breaking out in his sophomore season with 12 sacks in 13 starts -- as a 19-year-old.
But Tuitt struggled through an injury-plagued junior season last year, and came out for the draft anyway. The Steelers believe they were able to snag a top-10 talent in the middle of the second round due to those circumstances.
Of course, Tuitt believes that, too.
"I'm back to my normal self," he said. "If I was this healthy last year, trust me, everybody knows there would've been a different scenario."
With that, Tuitt let out another belly laugh, and this time it was sustained, as if he has gone mad with the knowledge of his immense potential.
"Like I said, everything works out the way it should, and it's a blessing to be here and I'm glad to be here," he said.
In his first day as the first team end, Tuitt actually showed improvement in the one area in which he had been criticized. He lined up with a more squat stance, similar to the stance Brett Keisel had developed here. Tuitt overran his gap on one play and allowed Dri Archer to cut back through the hole, but on the next run to his side, Tuitt read the sweep to Archer and angled back to meet Archer at a point five yards down the field and knocked him out of bounds to potentially save a long gain.
"It felt great," Tuitt said of the opportunity. "It was my time to step up and show the ability I have.
"You know," he added, "every day I work hard with these guys to become better at my position. I'm a rookie and I'm still learning. But I come out here every day with the mentality to get better."
And he will. The organization's already banking on it.
NOTES -- The offense and defense tied 3-3 in the goal line drill on Saturday. A play-action pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Matt Spaeth, a wide run left by Tauren Poole, and Josh Harris' run up the middle behind David DeCastro accounted for the touchdowns. Defensively, Heyward and Vince Williams blew up separate plays, and the offense was stopped a third time by a fumbled exchange between Roethlisberger and Harris. ... Martavis Bryant had a strong practice with his sideline and red-zone catches. Archer also played well, particularly, in the backers-covering-backs competition period against Lawrence Timmons.
To read Saturday's complete practice report, click here.