Sammie Coates loves the big stage. His stats last year bore that out.
In fact, the first question put to Coates upon being drafted was whether he had ever gone head-to-head against Golson. The questioner had no idea about their history.
"Yeah a little bit," Coates said with a laugh.
The follow-up was whether Coates had any success against Golson.
"I did a little something to him," Coates said with another laugh.
"On draft day," Golson would later say at minicamp, "when I saw them pick him up, shoot, I was happy to have him on my team. I played against him all four years in college. I know what he can do. It's better to be on the same side as him than go against him."
Coates played even better against Alabama last year. He set an Auburn Iron Bowl record with 206 yards on five catches, including touchdowns of 34 and 68 yards. But it wasn't enough to beat the Crimson Tide.
"I had one dropped in the end zone that should've been a touchdown," Coates said. "I was really ticked about that. There were a few other plays I was supposed to make and I didn’t come down with them."
Perhaps that's where the legend of Coates' drops gathered momentum. It certainly picked up steam during the draft season. Coates measured 6-1 3/8, 212 at the Combine with freaky numbers in the vertical jump (41), short shuttle (4.06) and three-cone drill (6.81), and merely excellent numbers in the 40 (4.43) and bench (23 reps). However, the stories that followed Coates dwelled on his high number of drops. The problem, though, was those stories had no consistency to the statistics. Mel Kiper pegged Coates' drop percentage at 9.8 percent. At the combine, NFL.com's Bryan Fischer reported Coates had dropped 13 percent of his passes. In his pre-draft profile for NFL.com, Lance Zierlein wrote that Coates dropped an alarming 19.1 percent of his passes.
After watching Coates through three weeks of OTAs, a reporter asked Golson if that latter number seemed a bit high.
"I think so," Golson said.
Coates was asked repeatedly about the drops, but kept his good nature.
"It's football," Coates said with that smile. "They've got their opinion about what I did in college. It's what it is. I just keep doing what I've got to do to get better today. They say I drop balls. That's their opinion. I just have to get better. Fix it."
Are the coaches telling him he drops too many balls?
Did some of the college drops have to do with a quarterback who's now a cornerback?
Do you dispute that high-end drop percentage?
"Nah, I don't care," he said, still smiling. "Nah. I'm still making progress and getting better every day."
Reese Dismukes, who played at Auburn and is also a rookie in Pittsburgh, was asked what characteristics describe Coates.
"Extreme competitor. Team guy. Unbelievable person," said Dismukes.
Did he drop one of every five passes?
"I don't know. I'm usually blocking," Dismukes said. "I couldn't tell you, but he's an unbelievable receiver, an extreme athlete."
And that's what the Steelers believed they uncovered as they scouted a receiver they feel can not only run deep patterns but catch screens, lower his pads and run with violence.
In fact, Coates was named the Class 2A Back of the Year coming out of small Leroy High School even though he played wide receiver.
Born and raised in Leroy, Alabama, about 60 miles north of Mobile, Coates' father died when Sammie was just 10, but the boy stuck with sports and became a football and baseball star in high school. He was the MVP of Leroy's win in the 2A State Championship Game with five catches, six rushes, two punts and a punt return, and it signaled the end of his 91 m.p.h. fastball days on the diamond. Coates committed to Southern Mississippi to play football, but four months later he re-committed to Auburn.
Coates sat out the first year with an injury, but in the next three seasons caught 82 passes for 1,757 yards (21.4 avg.) and 13 touchdowns. He graduated with a degree in Public Administration last December and came out for the draft a year early and the Steelers picked him in the third round. Yes, the same Steelers who have exceptional emerging talents in Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton opposite first-team All-Pro Antonio Brown.
Where does Coates fit?
"You can never have too many playmakers," Coates said. "You need to have as many as you can."
Does Coates prefer to hit the proverbial home run or run around linebackers and through safeties?
"I'm trying to be a player who can do anything," he said. "It can't depend on just one route. As a wide receiver you've got to be able to go across the middle; you've got to be able to run a screen; you've got to be able catch the deep ball. In this league you've got to be able to do everything. You can't be a one-horse guy. You can't just run straight all the time."
Coates called this "an amazing opportunity" but a week later was sidelined with a hamstring injury. He still practiced his routes -- elbows, knees and hair flying every which way before a cut -- with vigor, but couldn't get on the field through the final week and a half. It may have been the only time the smile left his face.
"It went good," was just about all he would say of the spring as he sat out the final week.
Will he be full-go at training camp?
"Yeah," he said. "And I'll work hard every day and get better every day there, too."
Fewer are doubting him each day he goes to work, too.