PITTSBURGH -- James Harrison started only four games last season so he wasn't all that surprised to find himself on the second team at the start of spring practices with the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday.
"Not starting really isn't an issue for me," said the 37-year-old linebacker. "I came in not starting last year, so it is what it is. I'll just put it like that."
Harrison did play well last season, and he finished strong, starting the final two games of the regular season and then the playoff game. It convinced him to return for another season, and this time he's back as the unquestioned leader of a defense that really needs leadership.
A group that had led the NFL in total defense five times in the previous 10 years had fallen to 18th last season. And now only Harrison remains from the defensive members who won two championships during that span.
"Yeahhhh," Harrison said with a long sigh. "That two-ring group is getting really small. It's a young man's game. You can't play it forever; no one can. So you're grateful for the time that you get and move on from there."
Part of moving on for Harrison involves paying back as a leader. The rest of the linebackers followed Harrison to Arizona for his annual March workout session.
"It's just more of an opportunity to get 'em out there working with someone that I've worked with for years," Harrison said. "I know the results he's going to get from the work that they're gonna put in. Right now they're stronger, they're faster."
"We had seven linebackers out there," said Jarvis Jones. "Everybody wanted to go. Everybody understands having James around here is great for all of us, to be able to follow him and see the things he's doing, and be mentored by him. He's a great person to follow, especially when you're trying to get to where he's at."
Jones, the No. 1 draft pick in 2013, laughed when he was asked if he's now bigger and stronger.
"I'm at a good weight," Jones said. "I feel like I got stronger."
Why did he laugh at the question?
"They've asked me that question two years in a row," Jones said. "I feel good. My coaches think I'm at a good weight, and I feel good with it. We've still got a long time before the season starts, so who knows."
Jones looks stronger than he did a year ago, when he offered many more details than he did Tuesday. He's obviously in more of an action-first, talk-later mode, and besides, "We still have so much to do." Jones said. "I'm excited."
The group will take a second trip to see Harrison's guru in Arizona at the end of minicamp. And this time the travel party will include another first-round draft pick, the latest, Bud Dupree.
"He seems like he wants to do the work," Harrison said of the rookie pass-rusher. "Now he just has to do it."
Harrison won't praise anyone until he watches him work, but Dupree has been given a locker just around the bend from Harrison's, so the lion will be able to keep an eye on the cub at all times throughout the work day.
Not that Harrison will do that, or even waste time worrying about anyone who doesn't have the self-motivation required to succeed in the NFL.
"I'm just leading them to the water," Harrison said. "It's up to them to drink."
Will they drink? Troy Polamalu had some reservations upon his retirement. Polamalu believes the Steelers have enough talent to win, but worried about the "new culture" that's replaced a group which finished out of the NFL's top five defenses only one time from 2004-2012. Harrison said he understands Polamalu's concerns.
"It's definitely a new culture," Harrison said. "It's a different era. We came in and it was grind and grind and whatever your role is that's your role, but you're still hungry to advance your role. It's just a different era now."
Ryan Shazier, for instance, was placed on the first team on the first day of spring practices last year, and then had a disappointing rookie year in which injuries and ineffectiveness caused him to lose his job to Sean Spence.
But Shazier put on "eight or 10 pounds" while in Arizona and appears to have regained his starting inside position. But this year's No. 1 pick, Dupree, is buried on the current depth chart behind Jones, Arthur Moats and Harrison, the may become the most decorated team leader to not hold down a starting position since Jerome Bettis led the Steelers to a title off the bench in 2005.
Does Harrison, the classic lone wolf, mind that such a leadership role has been thrust upon him by the coaching staff?
"That's nothing more than what's been on my plate in previous years, to be honest with you," Harrison said. "It's just they're being more vocal about it than they were before.
"I'm doing the same things I was doing before. It's just now we have a younger group and they're ready to listen and take in everything they can get."
Harrison spoke after practice as sweat streamed down his face. It was reminiscent of last September when he was called in off the couch and struggled to get into shape. The difference this year is that Harrison has since burned off the fat and his breathing is far more controlled. It's obvious that he felt much better than he did following his first workout last year.
"Whoaaa. Wow," he said. "Day and night. Day and night difference."
Does he find himself working harder as he's getting older?
"You don't have to work harder, just smarter," said the man who'll continue to teach the "new culture" what that means.