Rookies Show Off Immense Potential

Martavis Bryant and Daniel McCullers seemed like afterthoughts on draft weekend but the rookies showed off immense potential in their first live action.

PITTSBURGH -- Martavis Bryant scored a touchdown on his very first catch in his very first game, but he didn't grab the ball as a keepsake.

"Nah, I didn't get to keep it," said the 6-foot-4 rookie receiver. "I wasn't really worrying about that. There are plenty more to come."

Not only did Bryant run past a Texans cornerback for the 35-yard touchdown, he nearly came down with a shorter pass later in the game by jumping over a cornerback. It showed off his red-zone and third-down potential, and that had to be good news for the quarterback.

"Yeah," said Ben Roethlisberger. "But he still made some mistakes. There are still things that he can learn from. He’s far from a finished product, as all of them are, but you like the things that he did and hopefully he’ll continue to grow from them."

Bryant could solve a big problem for the Steelers if he does continue to grow, and that's his plan, or at least that's what he consistently told the waves of reporters who approached him in the locker room Wednesday. Bryant must've finished every answer with, "... but I just have to continue to get better."

He obviously gets it. And so does another rookie who showed off immense potential against the Texans: 357-pound nose tackle Daniel McCullers.

"If he wants to run straight ahead and push back, I don't think there's anyone in the league who can stop him," said guard David DeCastro, who goes up against the big rookie every day in practice.

"He's a load," said center Maurkice Pouncey. "I think he's going to help us out tremendously once he gets everything totally down and pat. He's a guy who can really have a lot of force in the middle and take up blocks. I'm happy he's on our team."

Like Bryant, McCullers saw his first live action of the season Monday, and the 6-7 sixth-rounder from the University of Tennessee displayed a powerful presence, even if he didn't really know what he was doing. On one play, McCullers drove center Chris Myers back, and kept driving him, right past the quarterback who sprinted past the eye-popping display of power.

"You would think," said the soft-spoken McCullers, "just looking from outside of the game, that you could just blow 'em up and mess up the whole offense. But it does create holes for the running backs and quarterbacks to get through."

So, there's a thoughtfulness that comes with detonating opposing lines, but the coaches had to love McCullers' brute strength in the middle.

"Yeah, they said it was good," McCullers said. "But they also said I need to keep working. I knew that."

McCullers had the look Wednesday of someone who loves every minute of what's going on in his life, and that wasn't always the case. His dad in jail, his mom not home, McCullers was raised in Raleigh, N.C., by his grandparents and two sisters, one of whom made sure Daniel got back into football after he had been cut by the middle school coach.

Yes, someone cut this giant in middle school.

"I don't know what happened," McCullers said. "I guess he didn't like me or something. But it's cool." It's cool because McCullers, thanks to his sister, went back out for the team in high school and made all-state as a senior. But his grades were so bad and his weight was so out of control, the 400-pounder enrolled in the Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, Ga., in 2010. There, he developed the discipline that comes with waking up every morning at 5:45 a.m. and working through a balancing act of physical training, studying and football.

"It was crazy," McCullers said. "But you just got used to it because you had to. You couldn't run away from it."

He finished in two years and went to Tennessee because he thought he fit right in the middle of its 3-4 defense. And he did. But coach Derek Dooley was fired and new coach Butch Jones installed a 4-3 and made McCullers a 3-technique tackle, which was a bad fit. That's probably why the biggest man at the combine, with the longest arms (36 5-8) and biggest hands (11 inches) of any defensive lineman, was available to the Steelers in the sixth round.

"McCullers is an obstruction," GM Kevin Colbert said on draft day, and that aptly described McCullers' performance on Monday.

"Everything that I didn't have, and everything that made work so hard my whole life at each level," McCullers said, "has helped me out in the long term. I'm here with the Steelers. Now I just have to keep working."

With so few reps available behind veterans Steve McLendon (injured) and Cam Thomas (newly inspired), McCullers may need something else to occupy time and space for the short term. How about fullback?

"Oh. That would be great," McCullers said.

Is that do-able?

"It is."

Has he mentioned it to the coach?

"No," he said quickly. "I ain't going to overstep my bounds. I'm just going to stay right here and chill."

But, he would like that?

"Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I would definitely like that," McCullers said.

Bryant had a similar upbringing as McCullers, but Bryant was raised by his mother and grandmother in South Carolina -- Calhoun Falls to be precise. It's a town of 2,004 on the South Carolina-Georgia border.

"I had fun playing high school ball until my sophomore year," said Bryant. "That's when my school closed down because there weren't enough students."

Bryant was a receiver and cornerback for a team that had only 20 players, and when the school shut down he followed his coach to Hanna High School, where Bryant earned all-state honors as a senior and also became a track star with times of 10.69 in the 100 meters and 21.46 in the 200.

After a year at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., Bryant went to Clemson because "it was my favorite team growing up as a little kid and it wasn't far away from my house," he said. "Local, liked the colors, loved the atmosphere, loved the fans."

At the top of Clemson's Memorial Stadium sits Howard's Rock, named after former coach Frank Howard, who was given the rock in the early 1960s by a friend who brought it back from Death Valley, California. The Clemson players rub the rock for luck before home games.

Does it work?

"It does something to you," Bryant said. "You've got to be out there to experience it to know what it does to you."

It worked for Bryant, who caught 61 passes for 1,384 yards and 13 touchdowns in three seasons at Clemson. He left for the NFL a year early amid a deep class of quality wide receivers, and thus the Steelers were able to draft him in the fourth round.

Bryant showed Monday night what he can do for an offense that's not only struggled in the red zone but needs someone to take coverage away from Antonio Brown.

In Bryant's first NFL game, he played 22 snaps, or as many as veteran slot receiver Lance Moore and only eight fewer than starter Markus Wheaton.

"The coaches were just telling me way to take advantage of my opportunities," Bryant said. "But we have to move on to the next one and get ready for the Colts."

How did Bryant feel on the field?

"I felt pretty good out there," he said. "I could do a couple things better. It's all about improvement."

It is. But these two rookies seem to be on their way to doing it.


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