PITTSBURGH -- Will Gay's been around, seen some things, so it's not just the sound of his voice that makes him come off as a wise, old man.
No, Will Gay knows. For one he knows rookies and how they must mix the art of survival with the art of making plays in the preseason.
When Gay was a fifth-round draft pick in 2007, he stood out in that year's Hall of Fame game. After which, a reporter asked first-year coach Mike Tomlin about Gay's stellar performance. Tomlin shook his head and scolded the questioner by saying, "William Gay's just trying to survive!"
But, that's exactly what he did.
"That's what it is," Gay said almost eight years later. "I mean, I think I was in the fourth rotation, maybe the fifth. In that game I think only like three groups played and then coach all of the sudden said in the fourth quarter, 'Get out there.' I told myself I gotta do something to make them give me more reps next week. I was blessed enough to get a pick and I forced a fumble, and I got moved up to the third group.
"It's all about trying to prove yourself. (Tomlin) told me later on, 'Man, I was thinking about putting you on the practice squad and developing you but you forced my hand.'"
Of course, Gay did survive and he's become the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 1 cornerback. Now he's the primary mentor for a group of rookies hoping to bolster a secondary that not only performed poorly a year ago, but one that lost some of the best defensive backs who've ever put on the black and gold. Now second-round pick Senquez Golson, fourth-round pick Doran Grant, seventh-round pick Gerod Holliman and a handful of first-year street free agents need to survive the veteran receivers who burn them in the spring with the veteran quarterback jabbing their pride by saying "Welcome to the big leagues, two-seven."
"The quarterback, man, is going to talk about the DBs, so that's cool," Gay said with a laugh. "But in my rookie year, when we had Deshea (Townsend), we had Ike (Taylor), we couldn't really do anything until we were in training camp. That's when you'll get to judge the rookies. The tape is going to tell."
It's clear Gay doesn't expect a simple wave of the wand to help a secondary that finished 28th in opponent passer rating, defensive yards per pass attempt and passing touchdowns allowed, and 27th in passing yards allowed last season. The decline in each of those categories was precipitous from the previous season, even though the pass rush fell off by only one sack in that time.
"Those numbers will improve if we're playing disciplined defense, so that's what we need to focus on," Gay said. "Everybody just needs to be disciplined. Don't try to do too much. It will come."
If performance in the second practice of the spring meant anything, Gay would've been proud of a unit that allowed only one successful two-point conversion out of the seven attempted in Wednesday's OTA. Of course, the second practice of the spring doesn't really mean all that much.
"We're just competing each day and we're going to be doing that every day," he said. "It can go either way. We just want both sides to be ready for all of the conversion attempts that are coming, and the more reps we do the better we'll be prepared.
Part of that success Wednesday was due to the play of the other cornerback, Cortez Allen, who's attempting to bounce back from an abysmal 2014 in which ineffectiveness and injuries sent him first to the bench and then to injured reserve. Allen is a reclamation project who believes he needs to get back to his fundamentals, and Gay, whom the Steelers allowed to leave for Arizona, only to sign back after the Cardinals released him, knows reclamation projects.
"It's not just one individual," Gay said. "We lost in the wild card. Our defense wasn't great. If it was, we would've been Super Bowl champs. So we all need to get back to the fundamentals in OTAs and hope everybody develops, not just one guy. That's what we need to do as the season goes on. I need to do it; the whole team needs to do it."
And Shamarko Thomas needs to do it. He's replacing Troy Polamalu at strong safety after two seasons as a reserve, a sometimes nickel back and a special-teamer.
Is Thomas ready?
"We're not trying to replace a Troy. We're not trying to replace an Ike," Gay said. "We're trying to develop a William Gay, a Shamarko. That's what we're trying to do. You can't replace them. My name's not Ike and his name's not Troy. That's what we're trying to do and we all know that. That's why there won't be any added pressure. We're just trying to go out there and play football. That's why they brought us here."
What does Thomas do best?
"His nickname is 'Headache,'" Gay said with a chuckle. "Hey, I hope he doesn't get fined but I'm ready to see that. He's an awesome safety: fast, can cover. He played nickel early in his career. He can do it all. I'm excited for him and ready to see him."
After playing so many years with Polamalu, Gay knows fast and physical safeties, but he also knows that the process needs to play out -- for everybody.
"Ain't nothin guaranteed. I ain't even guaranteed to be there," Gay said. "I've got rookie written over my helmet. Not literally, but that's how I think. Every day, man, it's like they want you out of here. That's how it is. If the front office can get younger, if they can get another guy in here more cheaply, that's the business. I know the business."
[Editor corrected Gay's quote on Allen 10:40 a.m. June 1.]