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A look back at the weekend that was, Part III, by a reporter covering the Pittsburgh Steelers

SCI.net publisher Jim Wexell looks back on the moments that defined the Steelers' draft weekend. Here's a look at Round 3:

This is the best time of the draft, between the second and third rounds, when you're rushing to get items about the second-rounder published just in time to look up and count out about five prospects, still known to fans, for the third round.

Rumors -- later proven incorrect -- began to circulate about this time that Andrew Billings had a bum knee, so my list prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers' pick in round three looked like this:

https://twitter.com/jimwexell/status/726242699561570305

THIRD ROUND

As we know, the pick was Javon Hargrave, the nose tackle with the pass-rushing potential out of South Carolina State.

I looked back in my archives to the day he visited Pittsburgh, April 8, when I tweeted out that "Mitch is going to love this guy." You see the response from another reporter:

https://twitter.com/MarkKaboly_Trib/status/718470454177046528

The press conference was indeed a love affair, first with Steelers DL coach John Mitchell, and then Hargrave. So, again, I went back into the archives to find a time Mitch had ever been as publically smitten, and it wasn't hard to find.

In 2014, Mitchell called Stephon Tuitt "one of the best defensive linemen in college" as a sophomore, a year before a sports hernia had slowed and fattened him. Mitch was effusive in his praise of Tuitt, as he do doubt had been with Cam Heyward, the first-rounder in 2011.

I didn't need to look that up, but with a team that's now drafted 10 defensive linemen in the last eight years (and really only used two of them last season), I went to the one comparably drafted position -- fourth-rounder Alameda Ta'amu in 2012 -- to see whether Mitch had been as comparably happy then as he is now.

There were a lot of "If he does X and Y, he'll do well" kind of quotes, nothing with either lavish praise or critical commentary. I do think this 2012 quote revealed a marked difference between Ta'amu, the 109th player chosen, and Hargrave, the 89th player chosen last Saturday night:

"I know that you play with 11 on both sides of the ball. Anytime the nose tackle can take up two of the other team, I know that only leaves nine, so we have one more than they have. That’s the way our premise is for our nose tackle. I tell him you eat up two, somebody else is going to make the play."

But here's what Mitchell had to say about his new nose tackle:

"This guy's a first, second and third-down player. ... And the speed that he has and the quickness he has getting off the ball, he’s going to be a big addition for us."

Mitchell went a step further with his next comment:

"He will give us a new dimension for a big man in our sub-package."

He obviously isn't looking for this nose tackle to merely take up space, but to penetrate and disrupt. Mitchell's looking at Hargrave as a playmaker, but did admit, "He's going to have to learn how to play with his hands better and he's going to have to be more consistent running to the ball."

"I can teach him how to use his hands," Mitchell added. "In the room with Cam, Tuitt and Big Dan, I don’t think we'll have a problem with him running with the ball."

Not with the run-to-the-ball tradition that's been passed down by Mitchell's great defensive linemen at practices. Heyward learned it and in turn rode Tuitt, who in turn has ridden Daniel McCullers.

Of course, when Mitchell opened the press conference by calling down the great Bill Nunn, you figured he was in a good mood.

"If Mr. Nunn was alive today," Mitchell started, "he would really like this pick."

Nunn, of course, is the late, great superscout who helped build the dynasty in the '70s, who had been to Hargrave's historically black university, South Carolina State, a time or three.

Nunn, in fact, was the reason the great safety Donnie Shell passed up better offers from Denver and Houston to sign with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 1974 after playing linebacker (and center field for the baseball team) at S.C. State.

Mitchell mentioned Shell as being one of three Hall of Fame players to have come out of S.C. State. Two of them, Deacon Jones and Harry Carson, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I'll tell you how we came about this guy," Mitchell said of Hargrave. "I was watching tape. I watched him. We go to the Combine. He has a good workout at the Combine. I come back and says, 'Mike, I'd like to go to South Carolina State to work this guy out myself and sit down and visit with him.' He had a great workout on campus. I liked what I heard from him. I talked to the people there at South Carolina State who said he's a high quality man."

Mitch was in such a good mood, I even made him laugh when I asked him if he had watched the tape of the Bethune-Cookman game, in which Hargrave had six sacks.

"Didn't he have about 12 sacks?"

"No," Mitch said between chuckles. "He played well. The thing that I like about this kid, is again, he played up to his ability. He didn’t play down to the talent that he faced."

Were you up on the table clamoring for Hargrave in the second round?

"I thought we got him where he should go," Mitchell said. "I’m really happy. I told Mike, 'If this guy's around in the third or fourth round, hey, if there was any way we could take him, let’s take him.' And I’m really happy. I think we got the best bargain getting him in the third round."

Mitch left the room, but news broke later of a moment in which he was spotted smiling and laughing again in the parking lot. Apparently, a reporter, walking back inside, saw Mitchell and said, "This kid has no idea what he's in for, does he?"

                                                                  * * * * *

Hargrave answered the phone and was rarin' to go. Just to remind him he had a familiar voice in the room, I reminded him that we had talked about Donnie Shell at the Combine.

"That's the legend! That's the legend!" Hargrave started, his voice rising.

Talk about a quick first step.

However, the follow-up on our end was slow in coming. Finally, someone asked him if he's as enthusiastic about playing for Mitchell as Mitchell seemed to be about coaching him.

"Maaaaan, c'mon, man," Hargrave said. "I about cried when coach called. I can’t believe it. I grew up a Pittsburgh fan. Yes, yes. I can’t believe it, man. That’s crazy. That's crazy. That's just a crazy feeling, man, for real. I can’t even really speak on it. I can’t believe it, man. It’s just a blessing. It's just a real blessing."

Again, the contrast between Hargrave's enthusiasm and the media's slow, sleepy response was stark. He was eventually asked if he was a Casey Hampton fan.

"Oh, yeah, of course," Hargrave said, his voice rising again. "I was a fan of that whole defense growing up, especially in them days, you know, when we were No. 1, 2008, the No. 1 defense. That’s how I kind of pride myself on, looking at guys like that."

Again, another pause had Hargrave wondering if anyone was there. His "hello, hello," was interrupted by a dull, monotoned question. It was half funny and half painful, and I guess I'm to blame as well, but I really had little to ask since we had talked at length at the Combine.

A few questions about Mitchell, and then his college, and then how important it was to be versatile, were followed by a question that sprung him into his basketball playing days:

Where does your speed come from?

"I think it’s just from me playing basketball as a kid, having to guard all these guards," Hargrave said. "My brother was a point guard, so we used to go at it every day. He just kind of made me quicker, my feet quicker and just made me faster and quicker at the same time."

At North Rowan High, in Salisbury, N.C., Hargrave wasn't just a forward for the state champions.

"Shoot, I was Player of the Year my junior year in basketball," he said as he chuckled throughout. "I wasn’t just there getting rebounds. I was actually playing."

Hargave said he weighed about 260 at the time.

"I was straight Charles Barkley, just put my shoulder into them," he said of his ballhandling.

"My pop liked the Steelers. My uncle liked the Steelers," he said in returning to the matter at hand. "It divided the family, Cowboys and Steeler fans, and I guess I was just on the side with the Steelers."

Building to a glorious finish, Hargrave talked about the high point of his pre-draft visit to Pittsburgh on April 8.

"The trophies," he said. "I tried not to show how happy I was to be there, but it was just like, 'Dayum, I’m really here? Dayum.'"

That's when it struck me: Hargrave has the same voice and inflections (only more outgoing) as the man he's hoping to replace, Steve McLendon.

"It was crazy, just the whole thing," Hargrave continued. "I kept telling everybody Pittsburgh was probably my best trip, but they all thought it was because that was my favorite team growing up. But they made you feel welcome, and at home. That was great for me."

(To be continued)


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