Snapshot: Gerod Holliman

Steelers' rookie seventh-rounder continued his ballhawking ways at first practice, and admitted that old shoulder injury at root of tackling woes.

PITTSBURGH -- Gerod Holliman had never heard of Mike Wagner or Darren Perry. He had heard of Ryan Clark.

Those are former free safeties for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were outstanding players who started for great Super Bowl teams. And they came into the league with little pedigree:

* Wagner was drafted in the 11th round in 1971.

* Perry was drafted in the eighth round in 1992.

* Clark entered the league in 2002 as a free agent.

So already Holliman has those three beat. Last week he was drafted by the Steelers in the seventh round.

"That's something to really think about right there," said Holliman, who after his first practice with the Steelers had been answering one question after another about his crashed draft stock.

At one point in the draft season, experts were slotting Holliman to the Steelers as a first-rounder. His nation-high 14 interceptions -- experts such as Daniel Jeremiah surmised -- had made Holliman an elite ballhawk.

But the 5-11 3/4, 218-pound free safety with the 4.62 40 time fell all the way to the 239th pick, 17 from the bottom.

"God has a plan for me," Holliman said Friday. "It's better I went this way. I get to come in with a chip on my shoulder."

Well, it's the shoulder that just might be the cause of all of this.

Holliman tore the labrum in his left shoulder before entering Louisville, and then re-injured it his first season. Holliman admitted it caused problems with his tackling.

"It really did and I kind of tried to stay away from it," Holliman said. "In the North Carolina game my freshman year I played on special teams. That's when I re-injured it. I had to redshirt and sit the year out. So it's something that I grew from when it came time to tackling. In my angles to the ball I really favored my other shoulder a little more. That's something I've been working on throughout my college career, to be able to square back up and get used to tackling with both shoulders."

The poor angles and the timidity to use the left shoulder are on tape. He only spent three years in college and didn't get the problem straightened out.

"I don't care if he has 14 interceptions if he can't play the run," one scout told draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki.

"Can't make a tackle to save his life," another anonymous scout told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Holliman's response?

"Everybody in the NFL, from little leagues to college, they've missed tackles before. The limited amount of tackles I had this season, the scheme I was in wasn't meant for me to be in the tackle. I was in the backfield, the last line of defense. We had a great defense so I really didn't get to be a part of the tackle situation that much."

But Holliman is a ballhawk. In his senior year at Southridge High in Miami, Holliman led Dade County with 12 interceptions. He returned five of them for touchdowns.

He was recruited by Ole Miss and befriended future teammate Senquez Golson on a recruiting trip. Holliman committed to Ole Miss but changed his mind and ended up at Louisville after Ole Miss fired its coach and one of Holliman's friends from back home, Teddy Bridgewater, chose Louisville.

Holliman attended a prep school for a year to get his SAT score up, and as a freshman at Louisville played three games before re-injuring the labrum. Surgery forced him to miss the rest of the season with a redshirt, but he came back to play 11 games in 2013. Holliman started two of those games, one at cornerback and one at free safety. In 2014 he moved to free safety full-time and won the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back with those 14 interceptions.

The total broke the Louisville school record by four, the Atlantic Coast Conference record by one, and tied the NCAA FBS record set in 1968. Holliman also broke the school and ACC records with 245 return yards.

At his first practice with the Steelers, Holliman, who had turned 21 two days earlier, got right back to work. He intercepted a wobbly and underthrown deep pass from quarterback D.J. Williams. It was symbolic in that Holliman got the spring practice season off in such a fashion because General Manager Kevin Colbert had said following the draft that the Steelers "just added 29 interceptions to our defensive backfield and we are excited about what that can bring."

Colbert and the rest of the Steelers' braintrust believe in Holliman. They've seen how late-round free safeties have come through in the past. Even legendary strong safety Donnie Shell, who intercepted 51 passes in the NFL, went undrafted.

"I like that one. I like that one a lot," Holliman said of the historical footnote. "I'm just ready to get out here and make a name for myself like that. It's based on perceptions, but where I get drafted is not going to define me. I just come out here looking to make plays every day."

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