"He's making a lot of plays, particularly up the field," said offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. "He's getting a lot of opportunities and taking advantage of them. We're asking him to learn a lot of things and he's performed well. How he does in preseason games is going to be the key."
In last year's preseason, Mays led Steelers receivers in yards per catch with his 5 receptions for 100 yards. But when the games counted, Mays didn't catch a pass. Not in the regular season. Not in the playoffs.
The 6-foot-2, 192-pounder was dwarfed statistically by Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El, who combined to catch 237 passes for 3,143 yards and 21 touchdowns to rank as the No. 1 trio of wide receivers in all three NFL statistics. Terance Mathis added 23 catches for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns to give the Steelers the top quartet as well. But Mays, the rookie fifth receiver, sat on a goose egg in all three categories.
"I was a first-year guy and just tried to help out," said Mays. "It really didn't bug me last year not to have any catches. Hopefully when it comes around I'll have more than zero catches this year -- hopefully."
If Mays doesn't make a catch this season, that will be the upset. He's bigger, stronger and faster this year. Amos Zereoue called him the fastest player on the team, and when Mays uses his big body and leaping ability over small cornerbacks down the field, he often looks like another Burress.
"He's a little more mature, too. There's no doubt about it," said Mularkey. "He's more confident and recognizes mistakes he's making before you have to go over and talk to him about it. He's surrounded by a lot of good players, too. That's helping him."
"I feel better," Mays said. "Everyone should feel better coming out of their rookie year. Stuff comes to you quicker and you react a little better, so yes this is a better camp this year."
Mays' biggest play as a receiver last year was in the playoff game against Tennessee. Trailing the Titans 14-10 late in the second quarter, Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox saw Mays run past cornerback Samari Rolle in single coverage. Maddox lofted a deep pass that Rolle broke up by grabbing hold of Mays. The 35-yard pass interference penalty put the ball at the Titans' 28 and set up a 39-yard field goal with four seconds left in the half.
"A lot of guys said I might have scored," Mays said. "But he made a real good play from a defensive standpoint, giving up the penalty instead of the big play. I thought it was a good job on his part."
Mays' only other contribution last season came as a kick returner. He averaged 21 yards on his 32 returns and didn't fumble, which was remarkable considering the way Mays held the ball so far away from his body.
"Yeah I did kind of hold the ball out there a little," he said. "I did work on it a little bit in the off-season, carrying the ball up high, shoulder tight. I watched film in the off-season and I did carry the ball a little bit out there. I guess I was lucky I didn't fumble."
Another area Mays hopes to improve upon is his blocking. Even a camp phenom -- whether he's the fastest player on the team or not -- has to block downfield for the Steelers.
"Coach [Kenny] Jackson drives us on that. We do blocking drills every day. That's a big part of our offense," Mays said. "In order to be a receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you've got to be able to block as well as catch the ball."
Camp phenom: Lee Mays
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